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When 10M meals aren't enough: Childhood hunger nonprofit struggling to meet demand

Every Meal has been partnering with schools to feed hungry kids since 2010. Inflation and federal food fraud has made their mission more difficult.

RICHFIELD, Minn. — A $250 million fraud investigation into Feeding Our Future has fractured trust in efforts to feed hungry children across Minnesota, and it's having a chilling effect on a very critical time for a local non-profit that has quietly delivered 10 million meals to hungry kids, and counting.

"To see adults, get in the way of actually serving kids, where that money could have been feeding kids, that's the true crime, in my mind," said Rob Williams, who founded the Every Meal non-profit 12 years ago. "We started this in 2010 as a little program in a church, of 27 kids in a kindergarten classroom, and now we work in 430 schools throughout the state of Minnesota. We serve about 12,000 kids every week."

On Friday, volunteers for Every Meal discreetly opened a locker inside Richfield's Centennial Elementary and slipped their 10 millionth meal into the backpack of one of the 34 kids who signed up to receive a weekend's supply of shelf stable food.

"The need is great and it's growing," said social worker Phil Rooney. "I see families that call up and ask, 'Hey, can you help fill my pantry, can you help me fill my fridge, and there's a limit for what we can do as a school."

Rooney says inflation has been wearing on families for the past year, but the problem became even more dire after federal funding for universal free lunches stopped this fall. Richfield schools has already seen school lunch debt approach $15,000.

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"I don't think most people understand the decisions some of these families are facing," said Richfield Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Latanya Daniels. "So (Every Meal) is just this wonderful safety net that has been developed for our students and families in order to fill this void that is in so many homes."

But Williams says that void is harder to fill than ever. Despite anticipating a jump in demand due to inflation, the need has exceeded all expectations.

"We expected about a 17% increase in participation in our program. We've seen over 34%," he said. "And we've actually had to cut back because of funding. When I say funding, I don't mean we need more trucks, I don't mean we need more staff, I mean, we just need more food." 

Williams says Every Meal has already been forced to pause weekend meal programs at dozens of schools, and the food limitations forced the nonprofit to cancel it's annual winter break program, which typically provides 35,000 bags of food for families to get through the holidays. 

He says more cuts are likely come spring, if Every Meal can't find more funding.

"We're not involved in the federal funding mechanisms, where we get reimbursed per meal or anything like that," he said. "It's 100% community funded." 

Though that's a critical difference between the food sites and nonprofits linked to Feeding Our Future investigation, which allegedly pocketed millions in federal funding, Williams says confusion over the case has hurt their ability to generate the support they so desperately need right now.

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"My biggest concern from the Feeding our Future fraud is the kids are going to get lost," he said. "People keep talking about the dollar amounts, which are huge and important, but who is suffering is the kids. It's made it harder for kids to actually get the resources that they need. It's cast a doubt on us, it's cast a doubt on other non-profits, other communities that are actually doing the hard work on the ground, serving those kids who actually need it."

In response, he says Every Meal, and every volunteer, will just have to work harder to deliver for the kids that depend on them.

"When we do the first week of distribution and the kids come out, and they notice their bag is heavier, they are like what?" Rooney said. "They are so excited for this healthy food. And that's the piece that's hard to communicate and hard to share about a story behind 10 Million meals." 

Despite its current challenges, Every Meal is still reaching about a quarter of the schools in Minnesota. If you are interested in donating or volunteering, click here.

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