Minnesotans turn to food shelves during summer

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For many Minnesotans, summer means a dip in the lake or a weekend at the family cabin. For others, it means that feeding the kids becomes particularly difficult.

During the school year, schools provide meals for thousands of Minnesota students living near or below the poverty line. But come summer, parents can no longer count on those meals.

“The child still is hungry. The child still has the stomach,” said Mary Kocak, food shelf director at Hastings Family Service in Hastings, Minnesota. “Now the parents need to absorb that food cost.”

Food shelf visits tend to jump during the summer, and many food shelf directors say the reason is clear: Families that rely on free or reduced-price lunch during the school year suddenly have a harder time making ends meet.

More than 300,000 school-age children in Minnesota get free or reduced-price lunch through the federally supported program. That accounts for more than a third of the state’s entire student population.

At Hastings Family Service food shelf, the jump in visits has been bigger this summer than usual. So big, in fact, that Kocak ran some numbers.

“We ran a stat because we thought we were crazy,” said Kocak. “And in June we had the highest number of families requesting help from the food shelf in our forty years.”

That was 134 families, a big number for a small area, she said.

Kocak suspects the jump is due to a combination of factors — children are at home, and families are still feeling the effects of the economic downturn.

“I’ve had many people coming in and saying, ‘I hear them saying on the radio and TV that the economy is getting better. I’d like to know where to look for that,'” she said. “They’re not seeing it in their own pocketbooks. Gas is going up. Groceries are going up. People are just not making it.”

Kocak said areas like hers face an additional challenge during the summer because there aren’t any summer food sites, which offer children free food. Last year, the federally funded Summer Food Service Program served an all-time high of 1.7 million meals in Minnesota.

People have to wait an extra day or two during the summer to get help at the food shelf run by Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People. That food shelf also sees an increase in the number of people asking for help in summer months, said development director Karin Meier. It serves between 7500 and 8000 people each month.

To help meet increased need, the food shelf provides breakfast and lunch to 600 children a week through a special summer program. The food shelf also makes an effort to stock more kid-friendly foods, foods that can be prepared easily like yogurt and canned fruit.

“No sense in sending kids home with clam chowder and Brussels sprouts,” said Meier.

But summer brings another problem, said Meier: A fall in food donations.

“Being we’re in Minnesota, people are busy with other things,” she said. “People are busy with getting to the cabin, and busy and otherwise occupied with festivals and other things going on their community. People tend to forget about the need.”

Hastings Family Service and Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People, along with about 150 other food shelves around the state, are participating in a fundraiser this month to help meet the increased need. The effort is supported by a $100,000 challenge grant from Open Your Heart to the Hungry and Homeless.

For more information on hunger in Minnesota, see our the Ground Level hunger page.

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