St. Cloud Summer Food Program continues to mature
The St. Cloud mom is one of about 16 employees of the Yes Network, a non-profit organization that coordinates the St. Cloud Area Summer Food Program, which serves 1,000 to 2,000 meals each week day to school-aged children throughout the summer. The group served meals in mid-June through Aug. 15.
The Yes Network’s food program is supported by the Minnesota Department of Education’s Summer Food Service Program, St. Cloud State University and Sodexo. It provides lunches to St. Cloud students who receive free or reduced price meals during the school year, who otherwise may go hungry in the summer time.
The St. Cloud Summer Food Program was started in 2011 as a community-based initiative with the support of the Promise Neighborhood of Central Minnesota and Sodexo’s Feeding Our Future program serving 8,000 meals that summer.
St. Cloud State got involved the following year and helped the number of meals served climb to 12,000 with volunteers from the community, Sodexo, Target and Schwan’s. That year Sodexo provided $20,000 in food donations through Feeding Our Future and continues its support, said Jerry Sparby, St. Cloud State professor of teacher development.
In 2013, Sparby and community partners formed the Yes Network to manage the meal program and added a job training component. That year it served 32,000 meals. This year the program expected to serve 60,000 meals.
Workers and volunteers serve 1,000 to 2,000 meals each week day. The program serves breakfast and lunch to summer school students mid-week, while lunch meals are distributed at several neighborhood sites Monday through Friday.
Ellison, who started working for the program last summer, now serves on the Yes Network board. She encouraged the program’s expansion to her neighborhood this summer.
In addition to making lunches, she recruits volunteers to help distribute meals in her neighborhood.
“I love it,” she said of the program. “… Where I live, there’s a lot of kids out there.”
Kurtis Neu ’12, Yes Network co-founder, got involved with the community initiative in 2011 as a volunteer while conducting research on grassroots community-building strategies and working toward his degree in cultural anthropology.
“My responsibilities kind of evolved from there,” he said.
Neu serves as the Yes Network’s media and communications outreach organizer and as the food program coordinator with Ruth Wiechman ’99, co-founder of the Yes Network.
Neu oversees efforts in the kitchen, and Wiechman works on grants and manages deliveries.
“Over the summers I’ve seen the impact it has on the community, so that’s the reason why I’ve wanted to see the program continue to grow and to become sustainable and to get as many people involved as possible.
“When I was a student, I sought out this opportunity as a way to apply what I was learning in the classroom to the community. I still think of myself as doing the same thing.”
A growing program
This summer the Yes Network purchased a food truck for meal deliveries with a grant from Second Harvest Food Bank, and St. Cloud Taxi and Transportation helped deliver meals to various sites throughout the city.
“Over the summers I’ve seen the impact it has on the community, so that’s the reason why I’ve wanted to see the program continue to grow and to become sustainable and to get as many people involved as possible.”
Yes Network co-founder
Sodexo’s Feeding Our Future program continues to support the Summer Lunch Program by managing food purchases, making sure the program meets U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements, helping with preparations and food donations, said Tim Ness, Sodexo resident dining manager.
St. Cloud State, the St. Cloud School District, non-profits, Sodexo and others are breaking down silos to combine resources they have available and help people, he said.
“By using the resources we have available, look how many people we can impact and help,” he added.
The program also empowers the parents of children it serves by giving them a chance to work and receive job training in the food service industry. The about 16 workers in this summer’s program were trained in food safety and transport.
The Summer Lunch Program helped the workers develop their resumes and gave them a reference at the program’s end, Sparby said, adding that he was hoping the program would lead them to food service jobs at Sodexo, St. Cloud State and other organizations in the community.
“The piece that came out of it last summer was the pride – the fact that these moms were making lunch, not only for their kids, but all the other kids in town,” he said.
Beyond feeding children and providing job training, the summer lunch program is also about creating community. The board of the Yes Network, which earned its non-profit status in the spring, is made up of six mothers whose children are fed through the program.
Parents are also recruited to help volunteer to distribute the meals, Sparby said.
“Our focus has been the food, and we use the food as a way to build relationships in the neighborhoods,” he said.
The Yes Network’s goal is to grow the program to include internships for St. Cloud State students and a recreation program for the children it serves.
Sparby said he’s hoping more St. Cloud State students, like Neu and Wiechman, will be inspired to go on to work for non-profits after graduation.