Minnesota free summer meals program expands sites by almost 50
There’s a new sign on the doors to Stillwater Junior High School inviting hungry students and their families inside for “Free Summer Meals.”
In the cafeteria, manager Sheryl Johnson oversees the typical lunchtime crowd of students in district summer programs and children in day care. There also are a growing number of families with children visiting the school each day to eat.
“It has been slow to get the word out,” Johnson said. “But the families that are coming are consistent.”
Stillwater is one of nearly 50 new summer meal sites across Minnesota this year as the U.S. Department of Agriculture works to serve 3 million more meals nationwide than it did a year ago. In Minnesota, hunger advocates hope to contribute about 10 percent of that goal.
Free summer meals for children are served at schools and community centers across the state in partnership with the Department of Education and area schools. Providers are reimbursed with federal funds that last year totaled $376 million, according to the USDA.
State and federal leaders want to increase the reach of the program because now only one in six of the students who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals during the school year participate in summer food programs.
“The reality is the summertime across the U.S. is the time of year a child is more likely to go hungry,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. “One of the biggest challenges is low-income kids who live in rural areas because those yellow buses are not moving in the summertime.”
In Minnesota, 261,833 students qualified for subsidized meals, which are a federal indicator of poverty, last school year. But only 45,966 participated in the 2013 summer meal program, about 17 percent of those eligible.
Funding for school meals got a state funding boost during the last legislative session when lawmakers approved $3 million in new funding to ensure no student was denied a hot meal.
The difference in the number of students receiving federally funded meals throughout the school year and during the summer has a lot to do with the way the program is designed, says Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota.
Neighborhood children can easily get to places like the Mt. Airy Boys and Girls Club in St. Paul, where meals are provided through a partnership with St. Paul schools and other donors. Diana Adamson, site director, says a recent survey found 82 percent of the about 140 children who come to the center on a typical summer day come to eat.
Students such as Ariana Young, 9, spend their days at the club playing ping-pong and hanging out with friends, and they also get breakfast, lunch or dinner. Ariana says the meals are good and that she likes to watch the food be prepared and served.
“I like to cook food because that’s my backup plan for when I grow up,” says Ariana, who hopes to join the Navy or go to college to learn to be a clothing designer.
While expanding summer meal sites such as the Mt. Airy club is one way to feed more children in urban communities, reaching more kids in suburban and rural areas is a bit trickier.
“We need to put the food where the kids are rather than where it is convenient for the providers,” Moriarty said
Jenny Butcher, who coordinates the program for the state Department of Education, says opening more sites in rural areas and communities such as Stillwater means identifying areas of the highest need and then finding the right site and local partners.
“Most of our growth came from Greater Minnesota,” Butcher said. “Coordination at the local level is key.”
Hunger advocates also are getting more creative.
For instance, Minneapolis schools began using a food truck to reach children who can’t get to a meal site — St. Paul is working to get a truck they can convert for use.
Hunger groups also stuff backpacks with fresh fruits and vegetables to send home. Six other states have piloted a supplemental food-stamp program that sends debit cards home with students at the end of the school year to bridge the gap.
Concannon said a creative approach is necessary because federal rules limit summer food sites to communities where at least 50 percent of students are eligible for subsidized meals. Concannon would like to see Congress reconsider that threshold, especially in rural communities.
“It’s hard to be poor no matter where you live,” he said. “There are additional challenges in rural areas.”
Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/chris_magan.