Minnesota schools have shut down for the summer — and so has easy access to meals for some students in need.
While the number of students qualifying for federally funded free and reduced price meals has risen statewide, many still go without the extra help during summer vacation. Of the 323,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students who are eligible for free summer meals in Minnesota, only 18 percent take advantage of them.
As a result, some new programs are starting up this month to help fill the gap.
Beginning this week, South Washington County Schools in the east metro will use a repurposed yellow school bus to deliver free meals in neighborhood parks for kids in need.
Last week, the Minneapolis district launched a new food truck service delivering burgers and other hot meals to students at parks, apartments and libraries throughout the city.
And a free app, Summer Eats Minnesota, that helps families find where to go for summer meals has expanded statewide after launching in the metro last year. Many children are unable to get to the 700 sites statewide that offer the free summer meals or simply don’t know they are available, officials say.
“For students in poverty, the only healthy meal they get is in school,” said Daron Korte, assistant commissioner for the state Education Department, which partnered with the nonprofit Hunger Impact Partners on the app. “There are kids going hungry in the summertime. There’s still a large need.”
According to a report released last week by the Food Research & Action Center, Minnesota ranked 16th in the U.S. for its participation in the summer program, up three spots from the year before. The number of summer meals dished out in Minnesota has been on the rise, too, with 3.1 million meals served in 2017 compared with 2.2 million in 2012.
That trend follows the increase in the number of students qualifying for free and reduced meals during the school year, up 5 percent — 16,000 kids — over the last five years.
“A lot of people think it can’t happen in Woodbury or in my neighborhood, but it happens all over the state,” said Wendy Tracy, director of nutrition services at South Washington County Schools. “There are pockets of poverty. It’s a lot of people you wouldn’t expect; it could be your neighbor who could be in need.”
‘Hunger is really hidden’
This month, the South Washington County district and its nonprofit, SoWashCo CARES, partnered with Second Harvest Heartland, a Twin Cities nonprofit, to launch No Kid Hungry.
The initiative provides free food to students, with a colorfully painted school bus called the Summer Skoolie delivering meals at parks in Woodbury, Newport, St. Paul Park and Cottage Grove starting Monday and throughout the summer until the end of August.
The initiative also is working to get nonprofits and organizations to collaborate on delivering existing services to kids. The program is funded by the nonprofits and other community donations.
“I think it’s really unique,” said Pat Pearson, hunger programs manager with Second Harvest. “It’s the community coming together to find solutions.”
She said the program could become a model in the Twin Cities and hopes that it can be replicated by other first-ring suburban school districts next fall.
“Hunger is really hidden there; it’s not as apparent as urban places,” Pearson said.
In South Washington County, Minnesota’s sixth largest school district, 20 percent of the 18,000 kids qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Tracy said she hopes the district can reach twice as many kids this summer simply by ramping up promotion of the meals, which are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and available for anyone 18 and younger.
Other districts across the metro are responding to the need, too.
In Minneapolis, the school district has delivered cold snacks and food throughout the city for the past four years, but the demand has been so great that it added burgers and other hot meals on the new food truck that launched last week.
The St. Paul School District is expanding hours for its summer food truck to add more stops. The truck also features a “funmaker” — someone who organizes hula hoops, games and chalk for kids to play with at the site.
And in Hopkins, for the sixth consecutive year the school district’s food truck will hit local parks to deliver everything from chicken burritos to meatball subs. The district also rebranded and boosted promotion of its summer meal program, dubbed the “Grub Club.”
“We try to remove as many barriers as possible,” said Barb Mechura, director school nutrition operations for Hopkins Schools. “It’s just a really good reinvestment of what we’re doing the other nine months of the year.”