By Ellie Lucas, Chief Campaign Officer, Hunger-Free Minnesota. Special for USDR
Our work at Hunger-Free Minnesota, a time-limited, data-driven campaign, began with a basic question. What if we applied business strategies and analysis and engaged corporate, community, nonprofit and government leaders to solve a seemingly intractable problem, food insecurity? Could we make a meaningful impact? More important, could we make it sustainable?
It is the beginning of year three of this Minnesota model, a broad collaboration that is the heart of Hunger-Free Minnesota. The excellent news is that yes,we can indeed move the needle to sharply reduce food insecurity – in our case,to close the missing meal gap. We already have. Of 100 million meals needed to close our state’s gap for those who are food insecure, the equivalent of 49 million meals have already been added to the system. Other organizations are working on separate initiatives, mobilizing constituencies and using our Community Close-Up data (developed in partnership with The Boston Consulting Group) to help establish effective programs to add meals throughout the state.
Since launching our campaign in mid-2011, here are five things we have learned.
- 1.While poverty may also be with us, food insecurity does not have to accompany poverty.
We have enough supply. It is both ironic and unacceptable that more than 600,000 of our residents miss a meal as often as every other day because they can’t afford or access food. However, bridging supply and demand is not nearly as simple as it looks, or as we would like it to be. We know it takes a focused, collective effort to get that food from our fields, grocers, food shelves, and cafeterias, to those who need it most. Hunger-Free Minnesota is that committed, collective effort that has already been a catalyst for change in how we look strategically at food availability at the neighborhood level to close the missing meal gap.
- 2.The cost of hunger to communities is far more expensive than the cost of solving hunger.
In Minnesota alone, hunger – or food insecurity – is estimated to cost $1.9 billion annually in education and healthcare expense. Food insecurity leads to lost productivity, poor student educational outcomes and avoidable healthcare costs.Counter intuitively; food insecurity households have higher incidences of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular and other diet-related diseases.Documenting these costs on a financial and human level helped get the attention of business, community and government leaders. In our state, we work closely with executives at General Mills, Cargill, UnitedHealth Group, The Boston Consulting Group, United Way and the Children’s Defense Fund, as well as Feeding America food banks throughout the state. Having commitment at the highest level makes it much easier to ensure programs are funded adequately and that they are sustained.
- 3. Existing federalprograms intended to help those living in poverty are significantly underutilized and local communities can play an important role in changing this situation.
Utilizing these proven food nutrition assistance programs is one of the fastest way to impact food insecurity, but it requires attention, education and, in some cases, financial investments. For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a highly effective way to boost the food and nutrition budgets of seniors and working families. We worked with business and community leaders to understand how to motivate low -income seniors to use existing programs so they could remain healthier and independent longer. Senior enrollment in SNAP increased by more than 30 percent over the length of a marketing awareness campaign.In addition, we also needed to encourage the recently unemployed to apply for assistance rather than having their families skip meals.
- 4.Agricultural surplus rescue has huge potential to increase the amount of fresh produce for low-income citizens, not just for Minnesota, but on a national scale.
More than 300 million pounds of food is wasted each year just in Minnesota because it is either unharvested, or harvested but not sold. Our sweet corn rescue pilot program alonedemonstrated that up to 1 million excess pounds of corn could be harvested and distributed to 18 Feeding America Food Banks across the country! We accomplished this food rescue pilot program over a six-week period in 2013. Cargill contributed significantly to support this initiative, donating hundreds of hours of employee time, logistical support and equipment, including a facility for repacking the fresh sweet corn. We are expanding this effort to other crops – potatoes, tomatoes and more are becoming a regular part of food bank and food shelf inventories thanks to better connections back to the farm.
- 5. Childhood hunger is a potential crisis because of its future education and health consequences and we can do better – in fact, we should do better.
Childhood hunger deserves our immediate attention on a national scale if we are committed to improving childhood health and reducing the burden of ever-climbing healthcare costs. Research funded by Hunger-Free Minnesota and conducted by Children’s HealthWatchshows that when young children experience food insecurity they are at increased risk of poor health and developmental delay. One in five U.S. families with children under six years old is food insecure.
Our School Breakfast Challenge program is a partnership between Hunger-Free Minnesota and Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota. Thanks to funding and collaboration with our partners,General Mills Foundation and the Cargill Foundation, Hunger-Free Minnesota is able to offer not only a financial incentive, but also guidance for improving participation in breakfast programs. Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota works directly with schools, principals, teachers and nutrition directors to ensure that more students are able to start their school day with a nutritious meal that sets them up for academic success.
These are great beginnings; we must do more.