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Sen. Smith tours Rochester organizations

ROCHESTER, Minn. (FOX47) -- Minnesota DFL Sen. Tina Smith visited Rochester Thursday. She toured several local organizations, hearing how they've been impacted by the pandemic, how federal funding has helped and where they hope to go next.

Smith met with officials from Channel One Food Bank and Rochester Community Health Clinic. Both organizations, like so many others, struggled during the pandemic, but came out the other end stronger because of it.

"I'm so inspired to be at Chanel One Food Bank," Sen. Smith said. "I think over 3.8 million Minnesotans made a visit to a food bank or food shelf over the last year. That's a 55 percent increase. Who are the people that are visiting places like this? They are folks who are many, manty times doing just fine until something bad happens."

Channel One Food Bank Executive Director Virginia Merritt didn't think they would make it. She says the CARES funding has made all the difference in their success.

"It's been huge. This time last year, we were worried," Merritt said. "We projected a $200,000 deficit per month to serve our 14 counties. The funding through the state of Minnesota and the CARES act, it rescued us. More importantly, it rescued our food insecure clients."

The legislation funding helped the food bank establish a weekly shopping center (rather than monthly) and new prepared food program. It also helped maintain older programs, like the backpack program.

"There's always this fear, that if you open it up, there won't be enough. But, we've moved on from the scarcity mentality here," Merritt said. "We only have, only about one third of families or households are shopping here more than once a month. People are just coming here when they need that extra boost."

The strain was felt at the clinic, too.

"When you are uninsured, you really have limited access," Dr. Stephanie Low said.

"We really got reactive on really taking time to do that outreach and in reach to our patients to make sure that we were all just taken care of when times got tough last year."

There have been some bright spots out of this devastating year at the clinic, too.

"In the midst of this crisis, there have been great innovation," Smith said. "And expanding access to care. And also not just innovation, but also getting organizations like Community Health Services, the resources that they need so they can do the work that they know how to do."

Officials credit that innovation to the CARES funding.

"The funding that we have been able to receive from the feds has been instrumental in getting the technology up to date," Clinic director Kristi Halvarson said.

Some of the pandemic tactics, like telehealth, will stay for good.

"Telehealth is going to remain a focus for us," Halvarson said.

Both Channel One and Community Health Clinic hope to receive more funding from the American Rescue plan, which was passed about a month ago.

Sen. Smith also made a stop in Cannon Falls Thursday. She visited the Tilion Brewery Company, where she learned more about how the pandemic has impacted local businesses.

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Beret Leone

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