In the weeks between when summer school programs end and the school year begins, a growing number of Minnesota families struggle to find their next meal.
That's why the Roseville-based nonprofit Every Meal — formerly the Sheridan Story — launched a new pilot program to fill that void and boost access to free food at the end of summer.
The program, which started at the end of July and wraps up Sept. 5, gives away free bags of rice, soup, canned vegetables and other non-perishable food at more than 100 pick-up sites across the state — from libraries and fire stations to recreation centers.
"There's this little known gap in August ... and that's a big focus for us," said Rob Williams, president of Every Meal. "Sites have already run out of food ... so we know there's significant demand out there and we're trying to meet that."
The meal bags are distributed at libraries and other community sites that people may already be visiting. No questions are asked of recipients. (Go to everymeal.org/summer-meal-program for a map of sites.)
The meal bags have items similar to what people receive from food shelves, but some food shelves have limited hours or require reservations.
"Our focus is getting food out there in the communities where [people] live, where they feel comfortable, where it's safe and accessible," Williams said.
The new program expands Every Meal's reach beyond its usual work of providing students with food on weekends during the school year. The nonprofit started a similar winter program two years ago, which is expected to resume later this year.
Once the school year begins, Every Meal's programs will also resume, serving meals on weekends to students at nearly 550 schools across Minnesota — from St. Cloud to Worthington. That's about 27% of the state's schools.
In the meantime, the organization is fundraising to support its new summer program, which costs about $96,000 to give out 82,000 meals over about five weeks. Every Meal receives no government money for the program, so it's reliant on community donations.
Hunger relief organizations are facing increased scrutiny after an FBI investigation this year into alleged fraud in federally funded free meal programs in Minnesota. While Every Meal receives little government aid, Williams said the controversy over publicly funded programs has spurred donors to ask more questions of all nonprofits. That prompted him to post tips online about how donors can look for red flags, including by examining IRS tax forms.
"When something like that happens ... it puts into doubt what other organizations are trying to do," Williams said.
The challenges facing nonprofits come at a time of increasing demand for food assistance. While COVID concerns are subsiding and Minnesota has record low unemployment, food shelves and nonprofits are still seeing an influx in the number of Minnesotans this summer as people grapple with higher costs of everything from gas to groceries.
From December to June, food shelf visits in Minnesota rose 57%, according to preliminary data from Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a statewide advocacy group.
Even when consumer costs go back down, hunger relief organizations don't expect to see the numbers of Minnesotans in need go down, because people still face rising rents and lagging wages. During the Great Recession more than 10 years ago, the number of Minnesotans visiting food shelves doubled and never returned to the pre-recession level.
In Roseville, Every Meal has served nearly 30% more food in the last few months. Inflation has also hit the nonprofit's budget, with the cost of food going up about 30%.
Unlike other nonprofits, Every Meal buys most of its food — instead of receiving free donated food — to ensure that the food is nutritious and culturally relevant, Williams said. In 2023, the nonprofit may launch a fundraising campaign to add more warehouse space and expand its programs to more rural sites.
"It's all about the community stepping up and donating and getting involved and volunteering," Williams said, "and making sure those kids have the food they need to learn and grow."