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Minnesota Department of Education addresses summer 'nutrition gap'

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota education officials are setting their sights this year squarely on the summer break “nutrition gap” suffered many low-income students.

The Department of Education hopes to enlist schools and nonprofit groups to help ensure the students continue to get the free and reduced-price meals available during the school year once classes end for the summer. A glance:

The goal

The department wants to increase the number of meals provided to low-income students over the coming summer by 14 percent. Last summer, Minnesota schools and community groups fed more than 3 million meals to needy kids, state data shows.

To meet the goal, state officials need more schools and nonprofits to volunteer as site sponsors for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.

Last year, 189 groups sponsored 774 sites across Minnesota. That’s up from 49 sponsors and 326 sites, which provided about 1 million meals a decade ago.

The challenge

In 2015, 38 percent of Minnesota students qualified for free or reduced-priced school meals, a federal indicator of poverty.

Low-income families often rely on schools to feed their children one or two meals a day during the week. When classes end for the summer, those meals can be hard for families to replace.

“Their income doesn’t change over the summer,” said Monica Herrera, who directs the state Department of Education’s nutrition, health and youth development division.

“The summer food program has really evolved into a true partnership with a number of anti-hunger groups. There are a lot of people now at the table who care about the issue.”

Limited reach

While a growing number of school districts and nonprofit groups are hosting summer meal sites, their reach is limited. Last year, just 16 percent of eligible children received summer meals at schools, libraries and clubs throughout the metro Twin Cities and the state.

Reaching children in rural and suburban communities can be particularly challenging. Some organizations have become creative, using food trucks and busing to feed children in otherwise hard-to-reach communities.

Who pays?

The summer meal program is primarily funded by the USDA; the state provides about $150,000 annually to site sponsors. Last summer, USDA spent $3.2 million reimbursing sponsors for meals provided to poor children.

How to help

The state Department of Education plans an information session, “Essentials of Summer and At-Risk Afterschool Meals for Youth,” at 12:30-3:30 p.m. Tuesday at its headquarters in Roseville. Representatives from schools and nonprofit organizations interested in providing summer meals are invited to attend.

Other workshops are planned in April. Go to education.state.mn.us for more information.

The Pioneer Press is in a media partnership with Forum News Service.

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