Coalition launches effort to fight hunger in Minnesota

PRISM in Golden Valley
A woman shops for food at PRISM, a food shelf based in Golden Valley.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

One in 10 Minnesotans sometimes struggles to get enough to eat. That's more than 500,000 people. And if you ask Rob Zeaske, executive director of Second Harvest Heartland food bank, he'll tell you that hunger hurts more than just the people who aren't getting enough to eat.

"Whether or not we know it, hunger is affecting all of us," Zeaske said. "Our children are going to school less ready, they are not staying on healthy development paths. Our seniors are spending more time in hospitals. So for us to move the needle on this problem is a huge priority."

On Tuesday, a group of nonprofits and corporations launched Hunger-Free Minnesota. The coalition's goal is to make sure everyone has enough to eat by 2014.

The group's plan is based on a recent study by the relief organization Feeding America, which shows Minnesotans miss about 100 million meals a year.

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Rob Zeaske
Rob Zeaske, executive director, Second Harvest Heartland food bank. Second Harvest Heartland is a leader in Hunger-Free Minnesota, a coalition of nonprofits, corporations and community partners across the state. Hunger-Free Minnesota aims to make sure all Minnesotans have enough to eat by 2014.
Courtesy of Hunger-Free Minnesota

"For the first time, Minnesota has a finish line," Zeaske said. "We have 100 million meals, and that's a big number, but we are able to actually build a campaign that is commensurate with a gap of that size."

The coalition put together a detailed plan to meet its goal. It aims to add significantly to the amount of food in food banks and food shelves. That means finding new sources of food such as grocery stores that otherwise throw food out.

The group will also try to get more people signed up for food stamps, known as Food Support in Minnesota. Right now, only about 25 percent of eligible seniors are enrolled. And it'll work to include more children in free lunch and breakfast programs.

Hunger-Free Minnesota has $3 million to start, and hopes to raise $20 million for the first phase. General Mills and Cargill have kicked in $1 million apiece. General Mills CEO Ken Powell said as corporate leaders, fighting hunger is the right thing to do.

"We've learned that it's a real problem, right here in Minnesota, and we feel a tremendous obligation to help," Powell said.

Ken Powell
Ken Powell, president and CEO of General Mills. General Mills and Cargill are both providing $1 million for the first phase of Hunger-Free Minnesota.
Courtesy of Hunger-Free Minnesota

But beyond that, corporate leaders say it's also in their interest to have healthy — and productive — Minnesotans.

In fact, growing research connects hunger with all sorts of problems. Hungry children can experience developmental delays. They have lower math scores and are more likely to repeat a grade. A recent study from the University of Minnesota Food Industry Center found that hunger costs Minnesota $1.2 billion a year.

Janet Poppendieck, a sociologist at the City University of New York, has studied the emergency food system. She took a look at the coalition's plan and thinks it's possible to come up with 100 million meals. She said Hunger-Free Minnesota could fill the gap, at least temporarily.

"Whether they can continue to expand if it turns out next year you need 125 million meals because more people have been laid off or more people's incomes don't stretch to meet basic needs, there comes a point where exhaustion could set in," Poppendieck said.

And Poppendieck has another concern. She worries the effort is doing little to address the causes of poverty, such as a lack of living-wage jobs. In other words, wages high enough to keep people from needing food shelves to fill the gap.

Joel Berg agrees. Berg leads the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and has 20 years of experience working on hunger issues. He, too, says it's important to address the root causes of poverty. But he argues that providing food can be an important step toward breaking the cycle of poverty.

"If they're children, they can't learn. Hungry workers can't work. Hungry seniors can't stay independent. So the truth is, reducing hunger will reduce poverty over time," Berg said.

Hunger-Free Minnesota isn't the only group working to fill the meal gap. The Twin Cities Hunger Initiative has been working since 2007 on similar goals — so far, initiative leaders say they've increased the amount of food in the emergency food system by 33 percent in the 9-county metro area.

Minnesota Public Radio is a partner in the Hunger-Free Minnesota project. The partnership includes funding for MPR News to report on hunger and related issues.