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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”