The holiday break can be a hungry time for some Minnesota families that rely on free school lunch to keep their children fed.
That's true for many families at St. Paul's Maxfield elementary school. A program that started at Maxfield two years ago is now helping fight hunger at dozens of elementary schools around the country. "Meals for Minds" aims to improve academic performance by making sure that students get enough to eat when school is out.
One night each month at Maxfield, the gymnasium is transformed into a mobile food pantry. Schoolkids help their parents pick out free food.
Earlier this week, Kalema Flowers was already thinking about what she'll feed her four kids over break.
"The holidays, it's a lot rougher. Because you have to make so much meat," Flowers said. "Because they're not in school, they have to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner."
Flowers relies on free school lunch for her kids. Her family receives food stamps but without the pantry, Flowers said there wouldn't always be enough.
"I don't know what I would do. I don't know what it would turn me into," Flowers said.
Nearly all of the 426 students at Maxfield elementary school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty in schools. Fewer than 20 pay full price.
Principal Nancy Stachel knows food is a struggle for many of them.
"I always worry when we don't have school. You know, we're two meals a day, at least," Stachel said. "And so what's going to happen over that break? That's where something like the Meals for Minds food pantry is so nice. I can now know that my kids, at least for the next week, should probably have food."
The Meals for Minds food pantries are funded by Target, which launched the first pantry at Maxfield in May 2010. The program has since expanded to nine other Twin Cities schools and 67 sites nationwide. In the Twin Cities, Second Harvest Heartland food bank distributes the food with the help of volunteers.
“Hunger was one of the things that came through loud and clear as we were talking with schools... And if kids are hungry, they can't learn.”Jenna Reck, Target
Stachel schedules Maxfield's pantry late in the month, when families may run low on food stamps, and just before school breaks. But it isn't just breaks that pose a problem, she said. Many families need the pantry every month. In fact, she said the program is part of the school's effort to improve academic performance.
"It makes a huge difference for our families. It helps to relieve some of the stress," Stachel said. "One of the other things that comes with poverty, especially that high level of poverty, is high stress. Anything we can do to help to relieve stress for our families means a better living situation for our kids; means they come to school ready to learn."
Target chooses schools like Maxfield — schools with high poverty and low test scores.
"The ultimate goal is to put more kids on the path to graduation," said Jenna Reck, a spokesperson for Target. She said when Target started working with teachers, it heard repeatedly about food.
"Hunger was one of the things that came through loud and clear as we were talking with schools," Reck said. "That there's a lot of kids in the Twin Cities that are coming to school hungry. And if kids are hungry, they can't learn."
Research finds hungry children receive lower math scores, and are more likely to repeat a grade.
Target also provides a library makeover for each school. Together, the makeover and one year of the Meals for Minds food pantry costs $200,000 to $250,000 per school, Target said.
But at Maxfield and many other schools the food pantry isn't just about feeding kids. It's also about drawing parents into the school.
Stachel launched a school Family Night along with the pantry. Some parents come for food, but once they're in the building, Stachel said, it's a chance to engage. She encourages families to have dinner, attend nutrition classes and this week, stop by a book fair.
"It's less threatening. We can have a student who got in serious trouble that day in school, and their parent comes up here with them for the family night," Stachel said. "What happened that day is done. But it gives us a chance to just talk to that parent on the side. No big deal."
And in classrooms all over the school, parents engage with their kids during family night.
"We come every month. Every single month," said Felecia Harvey, whose twin six-year-old girls attend Maxfield. She said she would probably come even if there were not a food pantry. But the food does help.
"They gave me four bags to fill up, because I have two kids. So I got these two big old bags, and the two bags they just carried out," Harvey said. "That's a lot of food."
More than enough, she said, to get through the holiday break.