When Stephanie Williams heard our story about two Rochester schools that fight child hunger with backpacks full of food, she wanted us to know about a similar program at a high-need school in Minneapolis.
Backpack programs are springing up in many parts of Minnesota. They are designed to address a problem many of us don’t think about: Some children, especially those who rely on free or reduced-price lunch, don’t have enough to eat over the weekend.
Williams says starting a backpack program in a high-need school brought its own challenges, especially with limited resources.
“It wasn’t easy to figure out who needed the food first,” Williams recalled. At Sheridan, more than 92 percent of students quality for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty levels.
They started last fall with just one grade. The program’s been going well, Williams says, and is expanding it to more grades.
Sheridan is about to receive more help. Last night, Target launched its Meals for Minds program at Sheridan, its fifth site in the Twin Cities. Meals for Minds brings food into schools, allowing whole families to come and pick out enough for 15 to 20 meals. It’s almost like a food shelf comes to the school for an evening.
“Our small church can’t afford to give 40 pounds of food all the time,” says Williams. “But Target can.”
The backpacks don’t cover all the need — they just provide enough for one child, many of whom have brothers and sisters at home. “Most of the students can’t carry enough food to meet the needs of their family over the weekend,” she says. “So the hope is that through the school and Target and us, the whole family can get food for the weekend, not just the child.”
In 2010, Target gave $3 million to start food pantries in 49 schools in 13 cities across the country. Target spokesperson Jenna Reck stresses that the program, part of Target’s education initiative, is still a pilot.
“We know that kids can’t learn if they’re hungry at school,” Reck says.
Research shows that kids learn more when they’re not hungry. They earn higher math scores and are less likely to repeat a grade.
The food pantry, Reck explained, is a way for Target to reach kids in a place they’re comfortable, and visit anyway. At many sites, food pantry night is combined with other activities — a family dinner, nutrition classes, or parent-teacher conferences.
Second Harvest Heartland food bank works with Target on the program in the Twin Cities, bringing in all kinds of food, including fresh produce.
Sheridan will have food pantry night just once a month, and Stephanie Williams says the students will continue to get backpacks every Friday. She hopes that, together, the two efforts will make sure that children get enough to eat on the weekends, and come to school Monday ready to learn.
Julie Siple reports on hunger and related issues for Minnesota Public Radio News. MPR is a partner in the Hunger-Free Minnesota project, which helps fund her reporting.