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Published June 13 2013

Summer meal programs in Minnesota uneven

ST. PETER, Minn. – Children in northwestern Minnesota who eat subsidized lunches during the school year won’t receive 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 recently produced by the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter. The map shows the Minnesota counties with the greatest percentage of children who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. It also shows how well counties deliver meals to those kids.

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 lets out.

This summer’s program, which just started, relies on some 150 organizations, not just school districts, to fill the need.

The center’s map, based on summer 2012 data, shows how much Minnesota varies from place to place. In the far northwestern counties and a few Dakota-border counties, for example, no organizations provided meals. 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. Because of low population density, there are also fewer programs and volunteers to operate them.

Even among those western counties, there are differences. For example, in Pipestone County in southwest Minnesota, 44 percent of students are eligible for the subsidized meals. Last summer, programs there served 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 county in the Twin Cities 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 isn’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.

Earlier this year, the center produced a report calling into question whether anyone was speaking for rural Minnesota anymore. Finstad said its map is the first in a series aimed at trying to keep that conversation going.