The first week of school is when many school administrators learn their students don’t get enough to eat.
"The first week of school last year alone, I had over 40 calls from different school staff, saying, 'I've heard about this concern from a child or from their parent saying they don't have access to food on the weekends,’” said Lindsey Torkilsen, director of programs at Sheridan Story — a nonprofit that distributes meals to school kids in and around the Twin Cities.
Nearly 1 in 10 Minnesota households struggles to put food on the table. That's according to 2017 data from the USDA.
There are some government-funded programs that provide food to these households, including free and reduced school lunch programs. But school lunch programs don't operate on the weekends, or for long stretches of time during school breaks.
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"A little-known or at least little-focused-on food gap is what we've called the August food gap. That's a period when the kids who may have been in summer school are not in school anymore and the school year hasn't started yet,” said Sheridan Story’s executive director, Rob Williams.
“How can we get food into the community, into the homes of the kids that need it, so that they would have access to the nutrition and food to help them grow and learn and get ready for school?"
Sheridan Story operates a warehouse in the St. Paul suburb of Roseville. It frequently hosts groups of volunteers who pack food into boxes to deliver to distribution locations.
Williams said the August food gap is a logistical problem that his organization is trying to solve by partnering with the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities. It’s shipping the food to YMCA locations in the Twin Cities, Hudson, Hastings and Rochester. He said anyone who needs a bag can pick one up at a YMCA location until Aug. 30, no questions asked.
"Hunger is a solvable problem,” he said. “To solve hunger you need food to eat and then you're not hungry anymore. We view food insecurity not as a supply problem, but as a distribution problem. There's plenty of food available, it's just not in the homes or hands of all the kids or families that need it."
When school starts up in September, Williams said, his program will continue to fill weekend food gaps by distributing bags of food to children at school. His organization works in more than 200 schools to feed almost 7,000 kids every week. But he says there are 80 schools on a waitlist to join the program as soon as he can raise enough funds to add them.
“Food insecurity, especially among children, can be very hidden … . Often people aren’t aware that it’s an issue unless someone tells them it’s an issue,” Williams said. “I guarantee there’s kids living nearby, going to the school, that don’t have food on the weekends or food over breaks or the summer.”