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Filling the summer meal gap for Minnesota youth: ‘It’s not a supply problem. It’s a distribution problem.’

Minneapolis Public Schools' new food truck, Street Eats
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Minneapolis Public Schools' new food truck, Street Eats, serving up free lunches at Jackson Square Park at the launch of its summer food program on June 14.

Earlier this month, the Minneapolis Public Schools district launched the newest addition to its summer food program: Street Eats, a food truck serving hot meals at eight locations throughout the city on weekdays through Aug. 17.

At the launch event held at Jackson Square Park, all youth who waited in line (ages 18 or younger) received a hamburger and some fresh fruit. They didn’t have to register in advance. They didn’t have to pay.

J. Carpenter, a North Minneapolis resident, brought all six of his kids, ages 1 to 13, to the event. He says his kids look forward to coming to this park to play and eat meals provided by the district during the summer — a routine they adopted long ago.

“It actually gives me motivation to come out of the house,” Carpenter said. “It gives us the opportunity to come, as a family, to the park. We love it.”

Tiffany Williams brought her twin niece and nephew, Haiden and Shawn, to get free hamburgers as well. She says they probably won’t come on a daily basis, but it was a convenient way to take care of lunch for the day. And for those who live locally, it adds value in other ways.

“A lot may not have a healthy meal option,” she said, adding it also takes away the need for families with curious toddlers to heat up stovetops inside their homes.

This summer, the district is on track to serve up to 420,000 free summer meals, said Ellie Lucas, CEO of Hunger Impact Partners, a local nonprofit that partners with the district. By next summer, they’d like to expand their reach, serving at least 500,000 meals.

Even at this rate, they’ll still be missing a large number of kids who qualify for and access free-and-reduced-price lunches during the school year. And the Minneapolis district isn’t alone in its struggle to reach kids in need of a nutritious meal during summer break.

Federally funded summer meal programs exist across the state. While some of the delivery mechanisms may be new — namely food trucks and repurposed school buses — the Summer Food Service Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has been around since 1968.

Yet experts estimate only about 1 in 6 students who receive free-and-reduced-price meals during the school year participate in summer meal programs across the country. And it’s not because of a lack of funding. The programs in Minnesota are far-reaching, but they have three main limiting factors: meal distribution hosts, transportation costs and public awareness.

Untapped federal funds

Each year, the USDA sets aside enough funding to provide free summer meals for every student eligible for free-and-reduced price lunches. The Minnesota Department of Education administers all Summer Food Service Program dollars, working with local sponsors who apply to host one, or multiple, meal distribution sites in their community. They purchase meals upfront and apply for reimbursement for each meal that they end up distributing.

Sponsors may be public or private schools, nonprofits, summer camps, colleges, local government agencies or other qualifying entities. The sites that each sponsor runs have criteria as well, to ensure they are located near high concentrations of low-income youth. For instance, one criteria states that at least 50 percent of the students enrolled in the local public school are eligible for free-and-reduced-price meals.

Some sites are restricted to those who are enrolled in a particular program, such as a summer camp. But open sites are all-inclusive. According to a recent count provided by Hunger Impact Partners staff, there are currently 712 open sites scattered across the state this summer, up from about 640 last summer. Nearly 52 percent of these sites are located in the seven-county metro area.

Haiden and Shawn enjoying a burger from the Street Eats food truck.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Haiden and Shawn enjoying a burger from the Street Eats food truck.

There are fewer sponsor organizations running the seven-county metro area’s share of summer meal sites — just 45, compared to 122 sponsors in Greater Minnesota.

The top 35 most heavily trafficked sites are all school sites, “which makes sense because ... they can promote it to their kids before they leave; and it’s a place kids feel comfortable going,” said Stacey Stockdill, a consultant for Hunger Impact Partners.

Based on state data, upwards of 330,000 students in grades K-12 qualify for free summer meals. Add in youth ages 0 to 4 who are enrolled in Medicaid, Stockdill says, and that number is closer to 500,000 who are “at risk for going hungry this summer.”

Of those who are school-aged, less than 20 percent actually take advantage of summer meal programs in Minnesota. According to a recent report published by the Food Research & Action Center, Minnesota saw a slight increase in summer meal program participation last year, landing it a ranking of 16th in the U.S. for overall summer food program participation.

But the need still far outweighs the distribution numbers, says Crystal FitzSimons, author of the report. One of the main limiting factors, she says, is a lack of sponsors who are willing to take on the responsibility of running a meal distribution site.

“There are communities where there isn’t a sponsor who is taking on that role,” she said. “If a community doesn’t have a summer food site, then kids will not be able to receive summer meals.”

Absorbing the cost of leftover meals

It may sound simple — step up to manage a site and get reimbursed for your meal expenses. But Lucas says being able to run a cost-neutral program requires a high level of sophistication. If sponsors order more meals than they end up distributing, they end up taking a financial hit because they aren’t reimbursed for wasted meals. This risk, alone, can be enough of a deterrent for otherwise-would-be sponsors.  

Rob Williams, executive director of The Sheridan Story, a Roseville-based nonprofit that distributes free meals to students during weekends, holidays and summer break, is experiencing this pitfall as he enters his first summer as a new sponsor.

“It will cost us more than we’ll be reimbursed for,” he said. “It’s difficult to get the numbers right when you don’t really know what to expect.”

fresh fruit
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
At the launch event held at Jackson Square Park, all youth received a hamburger and some fresh fruit.

Earlier this month, they launched their USDA summer food program at a local park, located near 15 housing units where many low-income Karen families live. For the weekend, they ordered 100 meals through their food vendor that complied with federal nutrition guidelines and ended up with 60 leftover meals — in part because it stormed on Saturday and they couldn’t even set up shop. He’ll only be able to apply for reimbursement for 30 of those meals, since he ended up giving extras out to parents for free as well, rather than see them go to waste.

Williams says he’s hopeful that more kids will show up this weekend, as word spreads. He may even expand to another site next year, a move that would help mitigate inventory issues because he could move leftover meals between sites.

But he doesn’t expect to ever run a cost-neutral program. He’d rather have extras than send a kid who showed up home hungry, he said. He’ll rely on community donations to fill this funding gap, made even larger by other associated expenses like coolers and freezer packs to transport the cold meals, a fridge to store the meals in at their warehouse, and signage used to advertise the program.

“It’s not a supply problem. It’s a distribution problem,” he said of the federally funded program. “And in the summer, it’s finding them.”

Accessibility issues

Tim Lutz, superintendent of Kelliher Public School, says every year anywhere from 70-75 percent of his students qualify for free-and-reduced price lunches. Anecdotally, he sees most kids eating breakfast when they walk in the door. His concern, though, is that often times the food choices they’re making — a bag of chips and a bottle of soda — aren’t very nutritious.

For that very reason, he’d like to be able to run a summer meal program. But the biggest limiting factor in this rural northern Minnesota district is transportation.

“We’ve tried a few programs where we’ve invited people in, but we get a poor response unless we provide the transportation,” he said, noting only about 10 students live in town and the rest live scattered across the district, in some cases more than 45 miles from the school.

“A summer meal program, I’m sure, would provide better nutrition where they need it,” he said.

Instead, they offer what they can: summer meals for those who are on site during the 16 days of summer school that the district offers, whether they’re there for class or sports practice or any other reason.

Rob Williams
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Rob Williams

To help eliminate the transportation barrier, some states have piloted debit card initiatives that allow low-income students’ families to purchase additional food during the summer months.

As Williams indicated, however, one of the greatest limiting factors for summer meal programs has to do with the fact that not enough families who stand to benefit from them know where and when to access them.

In response, Hunger Impact Partners developed a free mobile app — Summer Eats Minnesota — that tells users the location, hours and menus of the open sites nearby.

“I think part of the challenge has been unless you’re sitting at your computer or planning the course of your day, how do you know where these meals are? The app was designed to put it at your fingertips,” Lucas said.

As of June 20, she said the app had been downloaded 3,641 times. And she’s hoping some of those downloads include phones owned by youth ministers, social workers, police officers and others who come into contact with children who might stand to benefit from free summer meal programs on a daily basis. And as more people start utilizing the app to plan out their routines and show up for free meals, she hopes participation numbers will become a bit more predictable as well.

“If communities pull together and help kids source these meals, or just talk about how important  it is, it becomes less about who can afford it and who can’t,” she said. “It becomes more about the nutrition message: Eat because you feel better. Eat because you perform better.”

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Comments (5)

Year long school to

Let's point out something obvious. Poor kids don't just go hungry in the summer and on school breaks. If they are behind academically, they live in families less able to provide them with summer enrichment activities such as camps or travel, which puts them even further behind at the start of the new school year. The easiest way to keep them well fed and educated is to operate on a year round school basis at the option of the family.

Sure the farm kids can be home working in the summer (with their access to food probably less of an issue), but with city kids who are trying to keep up academically, summer school is best. It can be structured differently with more outdoor activities and field trips, but isn't that the best way to go. That costs money - air conditioning, more teachers, and all the other costs of schools, but isn't it worth it for the outcome of less poverty and crime with better educated students. With that model, student teachers could get some of that experience in the school year.

Conservatives won't like one bit paying more for education of low income students, We progressives need to start selling new ways of doing basic things like education that profoundly improve our outcomes, by achieving multiple objectives through single, well planned initiatives. Do this as a trial in 10 districts throughout the state to work out the bugs and determine the costs and benefits and go from there.

It's a parent's top priority. Or should be!

I always struggle with these articles and programs. Why? Because I honestly feel it is a parent's top priority to ensure that their child's NEEDS are met first and foremost.

I was a single parent, and we had some lean years, it's true. They weren't easy. But my son always ate nutritiously.. if not expensively. And I did whatever I had to, to see that his NEEDS were met well. First.

I was the one who made sacrifices. I was the one who biked instead of drove. Who took a bagged lunch to work (and took a lot of grief from co-workers for doing so, for YEARS.) Who learned when the free days were at local zoos and museums so we could attend then. Who packed sandwiches and juice boxes whenever we went out and about because even fast food was too pricey (and not healthy). My son had a library card before he was 5 (and yes, he was able to read quite well by that point.). Reading is important and free books were cheaper than renting movies. And so on....

My son's NEEDS were met first. IF we had anything leftover, then I could think about mine. If there wasn't enough, I simply did without. I became quite creative and mastered lots of skills around the house, from sewing to hh repairs. And my successes built self-confidence!

I am not opposed to giving people a handout, short term, when it's needed. But I think it's equally important for people to have their priorities straight. When I read about massive numbers of kids going hungry it strikes me that the problem is huge and spreading and goes well beyond regular meals.

If a parent is so broke they cannot afford to feed their kid(s) then there are comprehensive programs they can apply for that will help them get their feet under them, get jobs, and get their lives together, in a wide variety of ways that will help them and their children have more secure and successful futures.

I just don't think casual food handout projects are the answer...because they don't hold the parents accountable and responsible. Instead, I feel they give them yet another excuse not to do their jobs as parents. And increasing numbers today don't need more excuses.

Spare me the hate responses. I worked for the government (started at the bottom and worked my way up). So I saw what worked, and what didn't, over the years.

There was so much wrong with

There was so much wrong with this story I didn't even know where to start. But you, sir, have succinctly and eloquently said what I was thinking...now get out of my head ;)

The Answer

It's all well and good to boast about how well you took care of your children, and we should hold parents accountable and responsible. What happens when they don't? Is there a Plan B?

As a nation, we are showing that we are fine with cruelty towards children. We look the other way when they are gunned down in school ("Thoughts and prayers" are looking the other way), we regard with amusement (Gravy!) their detention in cages at the border, and now, we are going to get on a moral high-horse about not wanting a few kids to be hungry because they have parents who aren't meeting their needs.

I don't doubt that every one of these kids getting "casual food handouts" would rather have parents who do all the right things. They don't, for whatever reason. Maybe their parents are irresponsible ("Get a job? Why would I do that when someone is going to give them a free sandwich in the summer?"). Maybe there are circumstances beyond their control that haven't been shared with us.

And if it's hatred to suggest that "smug" is not a good public policy, so be it.

I am all for feeding the hungry.

A couple of questions come to mind with this article. Who decides where the food trucks go? Since there isn’t any documentation needed to show you are eligible for free food, isn’t this just an undirected free food service? If this program is in place to help feed children who are eligible for free lunches, shouldn’t there be some oversite to make sure it is going to those in need? Why would we tax payers fund a program with no apparent ability to direct food to those who are eligible as opposed to a hungry 15 year old biking by? How are the food truck contracts given out? I’m sure there are some hungry 15 year olds in Edina, are the trucks going there?
Aren’t parents who’s children qualify for Summer Eats Minn already being covered by multiple programs to feed their children? If the multiple programs we have in place now don’t work ( making sure kids can eat), how will one more help?
At the end of the day, doesn’t the responsibility of feeding children fall on the parents? This is how Government just keeps getting bigger and less efficient, add more programs on top of multiple programs to solve the same problem. This has all the earmarks of another well intended program (costing tax payers millions) without oversite to make sure the food is going to eligible kids.
I hope this program helps in bringing food to hungry children, good luck to Summer Eats Minn folks.