by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
School kids take summer vacation; hunger does not.
About 300,000 Minnesota school children from poorer families qualify for free or reduced lunches. Whether summertime for these students means missing lunch, or missing breakfast and lunch, concerns food shelf officials. And they’re not just talking about the seven-county metro area.
“Rural poverty is a real problem that’s pretty well hidden,” Executive Director Colleen Moriatry of Hunger Solutions said.
The rural landscape is dotted with red flags.
“It’s a huge problem,” Executive Director Sue Estee of Second Harvest North Central Food Bank of Grand Rapids said of children who receive free and reduced lunches leaving school for the summer.
It means parents, who may have a hard time putting food on the table during the school year, must scramble for additional meals, she said.
According to the Center for Rural Policy and Development, only Ramsey County, with 54 percent of its children eligible for free and reduce lunches, breaks the 50 percent mark in this category among 11 metro-area counties. In Greater Minnesota, 13 counties surpassed the mark during the 2011-12 school year (see the map in this file, summer-RuralReality-free lunch, courtesy of the Center for Rural Policy and Development).
The countryside presents unique problems for the hungry.
Distances to travel are farther, public transportation is limited, gas prices are high and fewer organizations offer meal programs. Additionally, families confront the stigma of seeking assistance, the Center notes.
Programs do exists. The federal Summer Food Service Program offers free meals to poor children at approved sites — sites located in areas of concentrations of low-income children. About 36,000 Minnesota school children are served by this 45-year-old program, according Hunger Solutions. Last summer, some 2.3 million children participated nationally, receiving meals at almost 39,000 sites.
Minnesota food shelf officials critique the federal summertime program as having locations that are hard to find and get to for people in Greater Minnesota.
Those wanting to find locations where these free meals are offered can call 1-866-3-HUNGRY or 1-877-8-HAMBRE (for Spanish speakers), according to a United States Department of Agriculture website.
A food backpack program is another source of summertime food for children.
Families visiting food shelves can receive backpacks of additional nutritious food for their children.
“It means more pounds (of food) per visit,” Jill Martinez of Hunger Solutions said of the program.
Hunger Solutions received a $86,000 grant from the state for its backpack program. More than 2,500 children will receive backpacks over upcoming months as a result of the funding.
Some of these backpacks will be distributed to food shelves, boys and girls clubs and elsewhere by Second Harvest North Central Food Bank — about 1,000 backpacks per week during the summer.
The hunger demand confronting Second Harvest in northern Minnesota is stark. A 2010 survey showed the Food Bank – which distributes more than 4 million pounds of food per year to 135 agencies in an area stretching from International Falls to Princeton – serves some 28,000 individuals.
“I think it’s actually higher now,” Estee said of the number.
Estee, like others, views the challenges of hunger in Greater Minnesota as one of distance, availability and dispersion.
“You can’t walk to a food shelf,” she said of the reality confronting many rural people.
To a degree, hunger is a hidden problem in the metro and in Greater Minnesota, she said.
“You can’t tell someone is hungry by looking at them,” Estee said.
Center for Rural Policy and Development Research Manager Marnie Werner said Greater Minnesota has its own reality, its own set of problems. Solutions that work well in the metro may not work well rural Minnesota, she said.
Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected].