For kids who rely on free and reduced-price school lunches, summer break can be a hungry time.
But there are nearly 700 sites across the state serving free, healthy meals to kids this summer — no reservations required — and a new smartphone app called Summer Eats Minnesota is making it easier for children and teens to find them.
One additional perk of the app: It lists the menu at many locales.
The nonprofit Hunger Impact Partners created the free app and launched it this summer, in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Education and Minneapolis Public Schools.
Summer meal sites include community centers, libraries, food trucks in parks, churches and schools. Providers tap already allocated federal dollars to pay for those meals.
Hunger Impact Partners CEO Ellie Lucas said the app, which has been downloaded nearly 1,000 times, is designed to make sure kids from families who struggle to make ends meet can access food themselves.
“The emergency food system wasn’t designed for kids. If you are a parent, you can go to a food shelf or sign up for [food stamps]. If you are older, you can get Meals on Wheels. When you are a kid, you need an intermediary to make that happen,” Lucas said.
The need is urgent, she said. Sixty-four percent of schoolchildren in Minneapolis and 70 percent in St. Paul qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
Unlike school lunch programs, summer programs receive funds based on a neighborhood’s overall financial need. Those 18 and younger simply need to show up to receive a meal, no questions asked.
Bertrand Weber, culinary and wellness services director at Minneapolis schools, praised the new app.
“Hunger does not take a vacation in the summer,” he said. “Knowing where to find a healthy meal is so crucial for so many of our families while school is out.”
Food, goodwill at Messiah
One of those sites is Messiah Lutheran Church in the Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis. The church started serving a free dinner and evening snack to neighborhood kids and teens in 2011. It draws between 15 to 60 diners depending on the evening. Kids often stick around for the church’s summer youth program, though they don’t have to.
On Tuesday night, staffers were serving chicken Alfredo, a favorite with the kids.
“Some of these kids might not even eat today if they weren’t coming here,” Pastor Louise Britts said. She said the neighborhood has no full-service grocery and the incomes of many local families fall below poverty levels.
In addition to children’s meals, the church uses a different pot of money to serve parents meals so the whole family can eat together.
Intern Pastor Tom Gustafson said the camaraderie, peace and goodwill that’s fostered over a shared meal literally spills out the door into the neighborhood. Britts agreed.
“We find it de-escalates violence in the neighborhood and keeps people in safe spaces,” she said.
Connecting the dots
Lucas, who led the Hunger-Free Minnesota campaign for four years, founded Hunger Impact Partners in 2015 when she realized that children, the most vulnerable population, had the least access to food.
“We didn’t move the dial addressing child hunger like I’d like to see,” she said.
Lucas’ nonprofit crunched the numbers and figured that Minnesota was leaving on the table more than $100 million annually in federal reimbursement dollars for child nutrition programs. That included school, after-school and summer meal programs for kids up to 18.
“It’s a devastating number,” Lucas said. “We have a half-million kids in our state at risk for hunger.”
Her nonprofit focuses on helping schools, community groups and other nonprofits set up or expand meal programs for kids and receive federal reimbursement. In summer 2016, about 3 million summer meals were served to children through the program. Hunger Impact Partners is working to double that.
Much of Lucas’ work is showing schools and nonprofits how they can set up or expand meal programs and receive federal reimbursement.
“It can be revenue neutral if it’s run right,” she said.
Minnesota ranks 19th out of 50 states in providing summer meals, she said. The state claims only about 15 percent of the potential $33 million allotted for summer meals.
“I am not advocating for more money. I am just accessing what we qualify for,” Lucas said. “I connect the dots to the food we have, the kids who need it and the reimbursement revenue to make it sustainable.”