Minneapolis Public Schools staff unload food boxes from a truck at Windom Dual Spanish Immersion School. Each box contains 14 meals--seven breakfasts and seven lunches. They're available to Minneapolis kids age 18 or under, whether they attend Minneapolis schools or not. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Ana Lilia’s children typically eat a free breakfast and lunch at school. So when buildings shut down in mid-March, their education wasn’t the only thing disrupted—so were half their weekly meals.

But the same week schools closed, Minneapolis Public Schools, and other districts across the state, unveiled a new way to feed kids: They began providing families with boxed meals to make up for the missing breakfasts and lunches.

“It’s a big help,” Lilia said. 

The free food box program began as a replacement for meals that would have been available during the school day. Now it provides boxes of 14 meals—seven breakfasts and seven lunches—at 50 schools, parks, and community centers throughout Minneapolis. The boxes come packed with fresh produce like strawberries and sugar snap peas as well as kid favorites like pizza and French toast bread. And the program is open to anyone with a child age 18 or under in Minneapolis—whether they attend Minneapolis Public Schools or not.

“There are no barriers whatsoever or requirements of documentation,” said Julie Danzl, student wellness manager for Minneapolis Public Schools Culinary and Wellness Services. “It is open to everyone.”

After schools closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, a handful of federally funded programs emerged to feed schoolchildren. In addition to school-based meal boxes, the Minnesota Department of Human Services is providing pandemic food benefits of $325 per child to qualifying families to make up for the lost meals at school. Now, the people who administer these programs in Minnesota are saying more families could and should be using them. 

Some eligible families may be missing out because of concerns that accepting public benefits could lead to immigration penalties under the Trump administration. But both these food programs are available regardless of immigration status–and some families qualify for both. 

Ana Lilia, for example, a 37-year-old single mom in south Minneapolis, is the sole breadwinner for her kids, ages 10 and 5. Before the pandemic, she worked at a small family-run company cleaning houses. But when Governor Tim Walz issued a stay-at-home order, she couldn’t keep going into other people’s homes to clean them. Even if she did, there would be no one available to watch her kids. 

With her income cut off, and her kids unable to go to school, the weekly food box filled with staples like fresh fruit and milk has proved a huge help.

Waffles, cereal, grapes, oranges, sandwiches, and pizza filled a Minneapolis Public Schools food box at Windom School. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Lilia, answered questions in Spanish and asked to be identified without using her last name, arrived in the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago. Like many of her friends in the Latino community, she worries about public benefits being counted against her as a “public charge.” Under a recent Trump administration rule change, receiving public aid can make it more difficult to obtain a green card or certain visas, which has deterred some immigrants from using public benefits.

But Lilia is not worried about the food boxes and the pandemic food benefits card that help feed her children. For one thing, they’re for her kids, not for her. For another, neither asks about immigration status or counts toward a public charge determination. And picking up a food box is so easy with no questions asked she doesn’t even have to get out of her car.

This is by design, Danzl explains. “We offer contactless pickup so typically a family will pull up, indicate how many children they need food boxes for, pop the trunk, and are able to continue on with their day,” Danzl said.

Lilia found the pandemic food benefits program easy to apply for, too. A short form online (and available in English, Hmong, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese) asks for your children’s names and where they go to school. Children qualify if they typically receive MFIP, SNAP, or free or reduced-price lunch. In 2019, 55 percent of Minneapolis students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. At some schools with high poverty levels, families may be eligible even if they don’t normally qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Eligible families can receive $325 per child to make up for the missed lunches from March through early June. In August, an additional $100 per child will be available to help with summer months. 

Nikki Farago, assistant commissioner of children and family services for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, says the programs are designed to alleviate some of the stress and financial burdens the pandemic has caused.

“That’s a significant impact for their families who are now in a position to provide those meals every day with the absence of school and also having to assist with distance learning and all of the other stressors that have come with this pandemic,” Farago said.

The deadline to apply has been extended to July 31. Students in public pre-K through 12th grade are eligible. Data from the Minnesota Department of Human Services shows that as of June 25, nearly 200,000 children across the state were already receiving these benefits. 

Tens of thousands of families have already applied in the Twin Cities metro area, but the state estimates that 24 percent of eligible children in Hennepin County and 20 percent in Ramsey County have yet to apply. In southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, home to a large Latino population, 58 percent of eligible children have yet to apply, according to the state’s estimates—one of Minnesota’s lowest application rates.

More than 2 million meals distributed in Minneapolis; 5 million in St. Paul

Most summers, public schools operate food distribution programs in partnership with parks and libraries. Typically, the United States Department of Agriculture, which funds the program, requires children to arrive in person and eat a meal in a group setting, at a designated time. 

But because of the pandemic, some restrictions have been loosened to allow students or their parents to take the meals home. And instead of just one meal at a time, parents and families in some districts can collect a box of 14. The Minneapolis Public Schools have distributed more than 2 million free meals since the beginning of the pandemic. 

St. Paul Public Schools, which hosts food pickup sites and also delivers to student homes, has served 5 million meals in the same time frame. Stacy Koppen, the nutrition services director at St. Paul Public Schools, said the district doubled its number of distributed meals when the home delivery program began. That way, they were able to reach families who don’t have reliable transportation.

“We meet our families where they are, and that’s at their home,” Koppen said.

Surrounding suburban districts, including St. Louis Park, Robbinsdale, Bloomington and Burnsville-Eagan-Savage are also running meal distribution programs through the end of the summer.

Farago says the pandemic food benefits program and school meals program complement each other. “Their ultimate goal is to make sure kids receive nutritious food regardless of schools being open,” Farago said.

With school plans for the fall still uncertain, so are the futures of these programs. It would take an act of Congress to extend pandemic food benefits, which passed as part of a coronavirus relief package in March. Minneapolis plans to continue its summer food distribution program through August 21. 

Danzl says MPS is preparing plans to keep feeding tens of thousands of children under all possible fall scenarios: in-person classes, distance learning, or a hybrid of the two. 

Lilia said she wants people to know they shouldn’t be afraid to receive these food benefits. Some people in her community are afraid they’ll be asked a lot of questions when they go to pick up their food boxes, she said. They worry their answers could hurt their immigration situations. But the only question Lilia said she encounters when she picks up a food box is how many kids she has. That way she can collect a box for each child.

“We want children to grow up healthy and strong,” she said. “So they need good nutrition.”

When asked what she wants people to know about the program, Danzl responded, “That we’re here. Please come get a food box.”

Need help feeding the kids this summer? Start here. 

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.