Schools respond to hunger in the suburbs

Years ago, few people thought children in suburban communities lacked food.

Times have changed, as data points to a growing number of suburban families with children who get their food from food shelves and their breakfasts and lunches at schools.

National data say one in five families with children struggles to put enough food on the table.

Since 2008, use of suburban food shelves has risen 89 percent, and while that percentage has leveled off, it’s still too high.

In the Volunteers Enlisted to Serve People (VEAP) service area of Bloomington, Richfield and Edina, of the 19,000 served, 40 percent are children who are eligible for free and reduced school lunches.

For the most part, these children come from homes where one or both parents are working, but don’t earn enough money to buy enough food.

Experts tell us that children who don’t have enough food to eat do not do well in school, are more likely to get sick and less likely to graduate.

Programs have developed across the suburban communities that deserve attention and could be replicated.

One unusual breakfast program is at four elementary schools in the Hopkins school district where every child can get a free and nutritious breakfast. The program is paid for through federal and state funds, particularly where there are higher concentrations of students eligible for free and reduced meals. Kindergarten students have their breakfast in the lunchroom, while the other students eat breakfast in the classrooms.

The program is having results. Where only 10-12 percent were eating breakfast, now nearly 40 percent of the students are doing so.

Barb Mechura, director of the district student nutrition program, will tell you how the program works; she can be reached at 952-988-4063.

Hunger isn’t just a problem for elementary students. At North Hennepin Community college, where 67 percent of students come from low-income households, a Food Cupboard has been organized. It’s run by volunteers and stocked by donations of food and money. School staff members support the program open to all students.

More schools are offering food to students during the school day. At Evergreen Park Elementary school in Brooklyn Center, there’s food at the “Den,” part of a model community school program.

Students at Champlin Park high school conduct food and fund drives to feed their fellow students.

Perhaps the best community resource model is the Eagan-Lakeville Resource Center which services 45,000 individuals a year, half of them children.

This program, aided by 500 volunteers and run by a staff of six, operates two pantries and a bus loaded with food for targeted families in Dakota county.

A hundred families in need grow their own food in community gardens where the center provides the plots, seed, watering and classes on how to garden.

There are “mission gardens” grown by volunteers and employees of corporations. Residents often bring leftover fruits and vegetables to the pantries.

Call or e-mail Lisa Horn, the executive director, for more information at 651-688-3189 and Eaganrc.org.

So, what can you do now?

This is Minnesota Food Share month, when you are asked to donate food and money to your local food shelf. A donated dollar can buy $7 of food.

The bottom line is that childhood hunger has become a suburban problem, and this month you can attack it with your donations of food and dollars. — Don Heinzman, ECM Publishers

 

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