Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


A major supplier of food to those in need, Second Harvest Heartland, has announced a new initiative with an ambitious goal: to cut hunger in half in Minnesota by 2030. Even more ambitiously, the organization plans eventually to cut hunger to zero. Its leaders have the good sense to take it one step at a time.

There is no denying the need. An estimated one-sixth of Minnesotans live with food insecurity — a term that doesn't quite convey the sense of despair and desperation felt by parents who are not sure where their child's next meals are coming from.

The new campaign, called Make Hunger History, takes some of its inspiration from lessons learned during the pandemic, when a variety of entities — including local government, hunger relief networks and federal agencies — came together to help.

"Everyone was at the table," recalled Allison O'Toole, CEO of Second Harvest. "We actually held the worst of hunger at bay. We saw rates hold steady, and in fact go down a little bit, because there was this infusion of engagement."

When pandemic relief efforts were phased out, she told an editorial writer, hunger regained its foothold.

"Everyone kind of went back to normal," she said, "and people went back to their daily lives, and those federal benefits ended, but inflation continued; wage growth was stagnant, and still is, to some degree. Food insecurity started to shoot up again."

But O'Toole and her colleagues remember what worked, and why. One key factor was the variety of people and agencies involved. An approach that arose out of the urgent needs of the moment has now become an operating model.

The Make Hunger History campaign focuses not only on giving people access to food, but on building partnerships to learn about hunger at a community level. That information can then help Second Harvest target food aid where it's most needed and contribute to shaping policy to prevent hunger from developing.

The need for a more informed, data-grounded approach was made starkly clear by two trend lines: Second Harvest was distributing an unprecedented volume of food, and the demand was growing faster than the supply.

"We're putting out record amounts of food into our community, but rates are going up," O'Toole said. "We've distributed about 120 million meals in the last year. We are at an unsustainable point.

"We can do better. We have seen what works. We have to continue to learn and change and be open to changing our approaches."

The organization is also stepping up its efforts to connect clients to social service programs like SNAP. Fighting hunger, say O'Toole and her colleagues, means also attacking the cycle of poverty. Hunger goes hand in hand with other financial hardships — such as a lack of affordable housing, decent jobs or good transportation.

Last year, Minnesota made a dramatic gesture to reduce hunger among children by passing the Free School Meals Act. It guaranteed a breakfast and lunch for every child, regardless of ability to pay, and did away with the stigma of identifying the kids who had lunch money and those who didn't.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board was among the skeptics who saw the bill as excessive. We thought it made more sense to limit such aid to families who truly needed it. We still think so, especially given that the law has turned out to be more expensive than it was expected to be.

O'Toole, though, describes the Free School Meals Act as a "game changer," and says it needs to be given time to prove its effectiveness. On that, we agree. One of the pillars of the Make Hunger History campaign is its emphasis on tracking its own effectiveness. Organizers have promised to come back in a year with a progress report, to see how its initiatives have performed.

"We have to learn what the community needs," O'Toole said. "We're putting a big goal out there, and we're going to be really public about how we do. My motto is always, 'Do more of what's working and less of what isn't.'"

Ending hunger in Minnesota is indeed an ambitious goal, but it is hard to think of one more worthwhile. If you'd like to help, contact Second Harvest Heartland at 2harvest.org.