As I’ve written before, the Summer Food Service Program will serve thousands of hungry Minnesota children this summer—children who may ordinarily rely on school-provided meals to keep their stomachs full. While the SFSP provides millions of these meals statewide, only about 15 percent of children in need participate.
A new report from the Center for Rural Policy and Development provides some insight into why so many kids aren’t taking advantage of the free meals: they can’t get to them, particularly in northern Minnesota. Despite high poverty rates, eleven Minnesota counties have zero meal providers. Six of these are clustered in Minnesota’s northwest corner. Lake of the Woods County and Red Lake County are among them; half of their children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch but don’t have any summer meal assistance.
CRPD notes, “Hunger isn’t just an urban issue. While Ramsey is the only one of the 11 Twin Cities metro counties with more than half of the children eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches, 13 rural counties topped the 50-percent mark during the 2011-12 school year. In almost all other rural counties, more than 30 percent of the children are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches.”
Rural meal programs face some unique challenges, of course, with transportation being a significant factor. As CRPD points out, “The high cost of gas and the limited availability of public transportation pose particular challenges to rural Minnesotans… The sparse population and greater distances in rural areas make getting kids and volunteers to meal sites more of a challenge.”
Organizations sponsoring a summer meal program must provide a site and volunteers (the Department of Education pays for the food). There may be fewer such nonprofits and schools in sparsely-populated areas, and they may already be stretched thin meeting the other needs of their residents in poverty. Second Harvest Heartland provides grants to help overcome these issues, but they don’t serve the northern half of the state. That extra funding may be one reason some southern counties have among the state’s highest participation rates per capita. Who knows how similar funds would help northern Minnesota?
Children shouldn’t be hungrier just because they happen to grow up in Winona County rather than neighboring Fillmore County—and the fact that we’ve allowed that to happen should make us all reflect on how we can commit enough resources to close the hunger gap.