The kids of northwestern Minnesota who eat subsidized lunches during the school year aren't getting much help during the summer. On the other hand, some parts of southern Minnesota where a lot of kids are eligible do a much better job of delivering meals when school is out of session.
Those are two at-a-glance conclusions from a map just produced by the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter. Click on the map for an easier-to-read version. The biggest circles represent counties with the greatest percentage of kids who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The darker the green, the more meals a county manages to deliver to those kids.
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Minnesota established a summer meals program in the 1980s to complement the in-school program on the theory that the need for meals for low-income children doesn't disappear when school gets out. This summer's program just geared up, but it depends on some 150 different organizations, not just school districts, to fill the need. It's going to serve more than 2 million meals in the next few months.
The center's map, based on summer 2012 data, shows clearly how much Minnesota varies from place to place. In the far northwestern counties and a few Dakota-border counties, no organizations provided the meals, for example. The schools in those areas have enough low-income students to be eligible for state reimbursement for the food, but no programs to provide them.
That's largely the result of the greater distances kids would have to travel to food centers in those areas and to low population density that means there are fewer programs and volunteers to operate them. But even among those western counties, there are differences. For example, in Pipestone County in the southwest, 44 percent of students are eligible for the subsidized meals and last summer programs served up 29 meals per eligible student, the highest in the state, said Marnie Werner, research manager for the center.
The map also shows that in only one metro area county -- Ramsey -- are more than half of school children eligible for the meals. Outstate, 13 counties have that level of demand.
Brad Finstad, executive director of the center, said it wasn't clear why there are such differences across the state in meeting the demand. "We're trying to provide some thought and some discussion," he said. "We hope people see this and start asking those questions."
To make the meals program work, organizations need to find the food, a place to serve it and volunteers to do the work. Finstad said he thought finding the site and the volunteers were the greatest challenges.
The center earlier this year produced a report calling into question whether anyone was speaking for rural Minnesota anymore, and Finstad said this map is the first in a series aimed at trying to keep that conversation going.
If you want to find a summer-meals program near you, Second Harvest Heartland has an interactive map to show you where.