Featuring Rob Williams

Listen in as Kurt talks with Rob Williams, founder and executive director of Every Meal. Across the United States, one in seven children experiences hunger on a weekly basis. During COVID-19, that number has grown to nearly one in four as schools, where many children receive breakfast and lunch, shut down. Nearly a decade ago, Every Meal stepped in to fill that gap, leaning on Rob’s background in global logistics for direction. What started as a program at one local elementary school has grown to serve 35 school districts across the state, providing more than 3 million meals last year alone. Tune in as Kurt and Rob talk about the roots of hunger and how, at its core, hunger is both simple and solvable.

Kurt 

Rob, thanks for joining me today.

Rob  

Thanks for having me.

Kurt 

I understand that you came by your current profession through a logistics background. Do you want to tell me how you got started?

Rob  

Yeah, so I used to work for an international logistics company. Logistics, as I define it is, or describe it, is a travel agent for freight. So basically, there’s shipping containers, you know, everything we buy is probably not made where we bought it. And so that has to be moved around the world or the country or the state. And that’s what I did. I coordinated moving stuff around. And so, I came into food insecurity, childhood food insecurity, through, actually through my church. So, I attend the Mill City Church, which is a church here in Northeast Minneapolis, and they meet at Sheridan Elementary School. Well, pre-COVID, they met at Sheridan Elementary School, and they will again, when that’s safe again. This was back in 2010, the principal shared with one of our pastors that kids were taking extra food at lunch on Fridays, kind of sneaking food into their pockets, they were having behavior issues leading up to the weekends, and they were kind of sluggish on Mondays when they got into school until they got some nutrition in their system. And the principal said, you know, she talked to some of the kids and families and realized that they didn’t have food to eat on the weekends. And she said, “Is there anything that you guys can do to help the kids in my school?” And we said, “Yeah, for sure.” And we didn’t have any ideas what that would be. And we kind of went about coming up with a plan and said, Well, how about we just buy food, put it in bags, and give it to kids at the end of the week, end of the school week, to take home for the weekend, and it’ll be a consistent, stable source of nutrition. So, we started with 27 kids in 2010, at Sheridan Elementary School in Northeast Minneapolis. And that’s how it all began.

Kurt 

So, 27 kids. How big is Sheridan? Like, what size problem is this?

Rob  

Well, Sheridan Elementary School, at the time, it was actually a K through 8 school. And there was about 800 kids in the school. And so, the 27 kids were actually just a few. It was open to the kindergarten grade of Sheridan School. And there’s no income requirements or anything, it’s just an opt-in. So [we had] 27 kids who enrolled in the fall of 2010, and over the next few years, we’re able to offer to the whole school and about 300 kids signed up out of the about 800 kids in the school. So it was, Sheridan was one of the one of the highest need schools in the city, or the Twin Cities I should say. And it’s a very significant need. And more broadly, if we think about the state of Minnesota, prior to the pandemic, there was over 200,000 kids facing food insecurity here in Minnesota, that’s about increased by about 50%. So now it’s 100,000 more. 300,000 kids facing food insecurity, facing empty cupboards, facing not-right food to eat that they’re used to, or that’s healthy. And yeah, it’s a very significant problem.

Kurt 

Yeah, so I just want to make sure I heard that right. So out of 800 kids, 300 were hungry and signed up for extra food. Basically 300 kids were trying to take food from the cafeteria, on Fridays, take it home, so that they could have enough food to eat over the weekend and not be hungry. Is that right?

Rob  

I don’t know if 300 kids were ones actually taking food, but it was ones that would need that food, whether they were taking it or not. I’m not sure. But yeah, it was 300 Kids signed up because they were saying we don’t have enough food on the weekend and needed that food support.

Kurt 

But you said this scales up to a need of 200,000 to 300,000 kids statewide. So that’s if I’m doing the math, right, that’s like a quarter of all students statewide. Isn’t this confined to just a couple of schools?

Rob  

No, so it’s a common misconception — I had the same [thought] until I learned more about the issue and more of the details of it. But you know, a lot of us kind of identify, you know, that’s the “poor” neighborhood or these are the few areas where the where the “poor” people are. I put poor in air quotes here. But you know, that’s where the need is. And in reality, every public school in the state of Minnesota has kids facing food insecurity. So, any community that anyone in Minnesota who’s listening to this, and probably every state, I mean, I don’t know why Minnesota would be different than other states. But in everyone’s community, there are people, there are kids who don’t have enough to eat, they might not be as visible, you may not know that they need that they might, on the on the surface look wealthy even or, you know, having enough money to get by but, you know, child hunger is can be very hidden. It’s not visible unless you see the kids, unless you interact with the kids or maybe get to their homes or you interact with them regularly. It can be pretty hidden, because it’s typically an at-home problem. And, you know, it’s a common, probably a natural even, I don’t know, maybe it’s a defense mechanism or something. But to think about the problem not being where we are, you know, it’s not, it’s not my community, it’s in that community. And in reality, it’s all our community, and it’s in all of our communities.

Kurt 

So, you started this through your church with one school, how did it grow from there?

Rob  

It grew a lot. We, you know, as I mentioned, it’s a very big issue. And what we focus on is what we call the food gaps. So, when kids don’t have access to other meal programs or other meals, typically government-funded programs. So, weekends are a big food gap where they don’t have access to the meal programs typically available at school. Holidays, summer break, even, we call them winter weather days now instead of snow days, because it’s not always just the snow that closes the schools, but winter weather days. And the weekends — it’s one of the gaps that people tend to not do a lot of work in, partially because no one wants to work on the weekends, right. And there’s no government funding available at all for weekend food programs. So that’s where that’s really where we live, is where there’s — We’re 100% community funded — So we live in this food gap. And to get back to the growth is, that’s a huge gap. And there was such a big need, that while our growth is great, in that we can serve more kids, our growth also means that there was that much need that was not being met before and need that’s still out there. And in the last, well, since 2010, or 2013, we started adding additional schools. Since then we’ve grown to over 300 different sites in the state of Minnesota. We provided about 3 million meals last calendar year. Which is partially due to COVID. That’s 300% increase of our normal year due to COVID and the increased need there, but we’ve grown quickly, we’ve grown, I would say, smartly, and we put in the infrastructure that’s required to be able to meet that growth. And it’s really indicative of I mean, yes, we have a great team, we have a great program, we provide great food. But the growth is only possible because of the need, you know, we don’t grow and create problems, we’re solving the problems. And so, you know, it’s really indicative or kind of gives a glimpse into the problem, the scope of the problem.

Kurt 

So, 3 million meals last year, and a lot of that during the pandemic, I would imagine the fact that kids were taking school from home probably impacted in some way. What does that look like if they’re not in the classroom?

Rob  

Yeah, so especially in the spring of last year, right when COVID hit and the schools started closing, and there was no anticipation of that, there was no real planning for that. The governor announced, I believe it was a Sunday, March around the 15th. And the schools had to be closed, I think, by that next Thursday. And so not a lot of time to plan. And you know, it’s a pandemic. So, this wasn’t — I don’t think we do drills for pandemics, normally, in school meal programs. So, you know, there was a lot of — I actually hate this word because it’s used so much — but there was a lot of pivoting going on. And they, you know, they had to adapt to a whole new method, which is, instead of like congregate dining, which is the kids are in school and they’re feeding them food in like a cafeteria setting, now it’s home deliveries. Now it’s bus routes where the buses still run, and instead of picking the kids are dropping off food. It’s, you know, cars driving in through a line and giving them food so they can take it home. So, there’s a lot of adapting that needed to happen. We partnered with 35 different school districts and their nutrition response. And, you know, the need was and continues to be very significant.

Kurt 

So that logistics background comes to play, again, how do you get 300,000 kids the food they need every day?

Rob  

Yeah, exactly. And, really, that’s what our whole organization is built on` is the logistical problem of child hunger, which, you know, I would say that food insecurity isn’t a supply problem, it’s a distribution problem. There’s plenty of food, I have a warehouse of food I can buy, basically all the food that I can get. And the problem to solve is getting that food into the homes, or ultimately the bellies of all the kids that actually need it the most. And, you know, that’s sort of what we do, is we solve that logistical problem.

Kurt 

Yeah, that’s just appalling to me that in a state, a wealthier state like Minnesota, we’ve got 15, 20, 25% of the kids who are going hungry. You know, as you think about upstream, what are some of the causes of hunger?

Rob  

Well, so, hunger is different than even food insecurity, which is different than poverty. Right? So, poverty is ultimately, typically, the cause of hunger, meaning you have a lack of resources to be able to buy or source the food that you need. Food insecurity is — my very loose definition, there’s lots of longer and different definitions out there. But essentially, food insecurity is not having enough food or the right food for your next meal, not always having the right food or enough food for the next meal. And so that includes if you only have access to say, gas station food, where you’re really just eating chips, because that’s all you have access to, or, you know, beef jerky, or something. So that’s not having adequate access to food, you might not feel hungry, but you don’t have access to healthy food that you need. And, you know, there’s lots of nuances in that. But so the cause of hunger or the cause of food insecurity is typically poverty, some sort of lack of resources by the family, or the kids themselves, if they’re, you know, say they’re 17, and they’re homeless, or they’re, you know, out of their homes. And, you know, the poverty spectrum is broad, or the causes of poverty is pretty broad. So, you know, whether it’s a more of an acute problem, like a loss of a job, or turns out a global pandemic, or medical bills or a medical problem. Sometimes it’s, you know, families, cyclical poverty, where, you know, a family has been under resourced for generations, for whatever reason, going way back, sometimes it’s drug and alcohol abuse, sometimes it’s just getting a bad break, and not being able to get out of it or not having the resources or the support system around you to get out of it. And so, you know, I don’t know how to solve poverty. I do know how to solve hunger or food insecurity. And to do that you provide people with food, right? So, you don’t have access, if the problem is you don’t have access to the right food, if you then get access to the right food, then you don’t, you aren’t facing food insecurity or hunger. However, the longer term, as we mentioned, the kind of like the upstream, or this is sort of like future upstream is kids now who are hungry, or don’t have the right nutrition in their system or much of nutrition in a system, it’s really, really hard for them to learn, it’s really hard for them to pay attention in class, it’s really hard for them to feel good about themselves, even like self-esteem. And so if they’re not going to get a good education now, or if they don’t have a fair shot at an education now, they’re pretty much, not guaranteed, but it’s very likely they’re going to be in poverty when they grow up, if they don’t get through, you know, middle school, high school, and graduate or even if they graduate, but don’t learn that much. You know, that’s those kids when they’re adults. You know, that’s the future. That’s who, you know, you and I are hiring in 10, 15, 20 years is these kids. And you know, the more upstream is if they get a better shot at an education now, they have a better shot in adulthood. And that’s what we’re really working on is that sort of long game of, you know, 10, 15, 20 years of when the, you know, 0- to 5-year-old, who gets nutrition now, their brains are going to develop better there. And you guys know this in the actual medical field and data that you do, but you know, it effects their whole lives, it’s not that you can just start giving them food when they’re 15. And it’ll solve it. It’s like, Well, that was 15 years of development and learning and growth and physical body growth. And, you know, it’s important there, it’s not just this theoretical problem.

Kurt 

Yeah, that’s a great way to describe it. I think that the issues leading to hunger, the not being able to buy or source quality food, those are complicated, right? It gets to poverty, it gets to, you know, transportation, and, you know, housing, situated near food and time management and other things. It’s complicated. But the reasons behind poverty are complicated and hard to solve, but hunger, what you’re telling us, is solvable if we just give people access to the right food.

Rob  

Yeah, and it certainly doesn’t solve everything. But hunger leads to a poor education, which leads to hunger. Right, so, that’s a cycle, if you’re hungry, now, as a kid, you’re probably going to be hungry when you grow up, because it’s going to be harder for you to learn. And that’s just how the world works. That’s how the human body works. That’s how education works. That’s how our mind works. And yeah, it’s not that we’re giving these kids food and now everything’s perfect. And, you know, their housing, fix their transportations, the jobs fix, and all those things to fix — it doesn’t fix everything, which is why it’s important to have a full, a broad spectrum of partnerships in a city or an area to support the families in the many different ways they need. And, but even if they have all that support, say everything else is perfect, and somehow, they don’t have access to food, they’re still not going to have as good of a shot at education. And they’re still more likely to then be in poverty and have hunger issues when they’re adults. And their kids then face food insecurity as well. And so that’s the cycle that we break is providing that food, partnering with others. There’s a lot of organizations, phenomenal organizations in Minnesota and elsewhere that are focusing on, you know, housing, jobs, stabilization. You know, alcohol, drug abuse, pick your thing, right, and, different people different need different things. And you know, that’s where that community support comes in, where it’s not, it doesn’t take just one organization, it doesn’t take just one doctor office, it doesn’t take just one, you know, school or anything, it’s really an encompassing thing that takes, you know, it takes a village to raise a kid, right. So, it takes a village to support the kids.

Kurt 

Yeah, I like that. I mean, it’s very clear that feeling hungry is distracting. And if we want to give people a fair shot at an education, it’s impossible if they don’t have food. Do you anecdotally see increases in things once these kids once you go into a school and they start having access to food? What happens?

Rob  

Yeah, so we work very closely with the school principals, assistant principals, the school social workers, and teachers in the schools that we work in, which again, is about 300 schools in Minnesota. And we asked them, you know, what do you see? How do you see our food, the nutrition, we’re providing the kids? How do you see that having an impact on the kids? We ask about academics, about behavior, about attendance, even self-esteem, and they all say, you know, 80 to 90% of them say it improves the kids in all of those areas academically, behaviorally, attendance, self-esteem and even like test scores and that kind of thing. And it’s logically makes sense, right? So, like, I ate before we recorded this podcast, because I didn’t want to be distracted by feeling hungry. And I’m an adult, right? I’m a relatively capable adult, I feel like, so if you have a third grader, second grader, 11th grader, and you’re hungry and like, it’s just stacked against you, you can still learn, you can still technically pay attention, but it’s just everything’s not firing. You’re thinking about something else. Even if it’s in the back of your head. You know, you don’t have the physical nutrition for your brain. It’s physically developing and growing and whatever neurons are getting whatever they do and connecting and however all that works, that’s what happens when you’re growing as a kid. You need nutrition for that. It doesn’t work as well if you don’t have nutrition, that’s why we always say eat healthy, right? So that’s the point. It’s not just for fun, it’s because that’s what your body needs. And so, you know, it’s not something that’s abstract, it’s not this theoretical, you know, yeah, well, we give people food because they’re hungry. It’s like, well, it’s not just the physical sensation of hunger, it’s lack of nutrition. So, we say that we only give good food, which we describe which we define as nutritious, delicious and relevant. So nutritious — It actually has nutritional components. So, we have a dietician on staff, and she does all these calculations and tracking and stuff of our food, what goes into our meal bags, and making sure it’s, you know, a balanced diet and all that stuff. I am not a registered dietitian. And I could not speak to all of those things, I know that you should eat your fruits and vegetables. But she handles all of that and builds that into our menus. And then delicious, we want it to taste good. So, if we get some food home to a kid, and they don’t eat it, it doesn’t matter how nutritious it is, if it’s disgusting tasting, right? So, you’d be surprised, I mean, maybe not. But there’s some gross peaches out there, canned peaches, we’re like spitting it out. I don’t understand how they sell it. But so, we don’t buy, you know, whatever the cheapest is, we find we make sure it has, you know, nutritional value, and that it’s delicious. And then relevant, which is sort of the more abstract one. But relevant is we want to make sure that it makes sense for that kid. So, if I sent a bag of rice home to a kid’s house, or home with a kid but they don’t have, you know, the right cooking utensil, maybe they don’t have a kitchen at all. You know bag of rice isn’t helpful if you don’t have a kitchen, or a can of pork and beans isn’t helpful if you don’t eat pork, or, you know, a can of fruit isn’t that helpful if you don’t have a kitchen or a can opener, right. So, we make pop top fruit cans, and you can open it by hand. We have different dietary preference bags, so one for like Southeast Asian type diets, one for Latino/Latina type diets, one for East African type diets. And then we also have like a situational bag, which is more for kids in a homeless or transient or highly mobile situation. And that’s more on like the ready-to-eat type side of food. We put a spork in there as an example. So, if there’s a pop top, can a fruit but they don’t have a fork, then it’s technically you can eat it, but it’s not very dignified. So, we put us individually wrapped spork in there, which I don’t know, if you’ve been to Taco Bell lately, I think they may be the last ones that you see sporks. But so, you know, that’s how we make sure it’s good food. So that it actually supports those kids.

Kurt 

Yeah, I think anecdotally, that was the hardest thing for me to learn as a new parent. Luckily, my kids are late teens and early 20s today, but when they were little, trying to get in front of the hunger curve before they noticed they were hungry, that was really challenging, because I think the kids didn’t know, you know, until they were already in that angry mode. But I could definitely say they would meltdown and not be able to learn anything. So, it’s that makes a lot of sense.

Rob  

Exactly. And I’m guessing you probably were relatively well-resourced at the time based on what I know about your background. And probably relatively normal scheduled hours of work, you might work late one night, whatever, but you don’t get scheduled, you know, 2 pm to midnight. And so, you know, if you are less resourced, or if a parent is less resourced, and time as a resource as well, not just money. Getting ahead of that is even harder. And I mean, I have a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old and a lot of work, you know, and trying to get them to eat what you have is it’s a lot of work, but that’s where it’s you try and find something that they’ll eat and that’s nutritious right. So that’s the trick.

Kurt 

So, you said that this is so hunger is solvable, and it’s something that we can scale to fix. You’re covering, you said, 35 districts in Minnesota. What does it take to get from where you are to cover that entire need in the state and why are we doing this through a nonprofit versus more of a permanent, government solution?

Rob  

Yeah, that’s a big two questions, but, yeah, so we serve we work in about 35 school districts. Prior to the pandemic, within those school districts, we served about 300 schools. There are actually 550 schools in those 35 districts. And come this fall, we’ll be opening our program to every school in those districts. So, every kid in every school in those districts will have the opportunity to enroll in our program. It’s completely opt-in, we don’t collect any data, they don’t have to have some statement of need or calculation of the income in the household. It’s all just if you want to enroll, and you’ll get the food, pick which type of bag you want, and you’ll get the food. So that’s it. Within those districts, within those schools, that’s about 40% of all the school-aged kids in the state of Minnesota. And to do that, we actually have to increase the budget from about $3 million a year at about $6 million a year or so. And so going forward, it’s, you know, if we just sort of take that scale, and just do like a math calculation, so I’m not like running, you know, distance of driving and whatever, but we go pretty far, we go about three hours north now. So, we get we get up there, you know, say $15, $20 million would cover would allow us to serve the kids in basically every school in the state that wants the program. Again, that’s sort of spit balling on the wall, let’s say $15 to 30 million to give us some breathing room. And so, then the other question is sort of like, Well, why doesn’t the government do this? So, we’re 100% community funded, we don’t get government food, we don’t get government money. We rely on individuals, companies, faith communities, Rotary Clubs, clubs, all kinds of stuff. But the community is who we focus, who we receive support from. And I think if the government funded, or somehow got food, for every kid, for all the food gaps, that would be awesome. And I would love for that to happen. Because those kids need that support. And if we didn’t exist then, fine, because it’s all about the kids, right? I don’t think that’s gonna happen. If it does, it’s not gonna happen quickly. And meanwhile, there’s hundreds of thousands of kids that are hungry in Minnesota, and the country. And it’s not that complicated. It’s something that community can actually fix, doesn’t it? When we identify a problem, if the government fixes it, great, but it’s, we don’t necessarily need to wait or rely or hope that the government will fix it, we can fix it. We don’t need the bureaucracy and the, you know, the politicians to figure out some sort of bill which if they do, again, all for it, meanwhile, we can all band together and fix this. In six months, our program will be available to 40% of the kids in the state. And eight years or so, or nine by then, we will have scaled to be able to serve 40% of the kids in the state. And so, you know, I’m sort of in the mind, like whoever wants to help, let’s do it. If it’s the government, great, if it’s all the schools, great, if it’s the faith community, government community, or corporate community, the education community, the medical community, it takes any of us can help change this problem. The government seems to be the slowest. Just because there’s a lot of opinions and moving parts and everything. And so, I’ve actually found the community to be pretty quick when you present them a problem like this, like kids not having food, and then a solution, which is let’s get them food. Now, it’s pretty straightforward. And the community can respond pretty quick. It’s just a matter of will and commitment and direction.

Kurt 

Yeah, I think it’s just, as you’ve brought this to my attention, I mean, it’s tragic that in a state in a city, in a nation that’s as wealthy as we are, this problem doesn’t cost a lot to fix. And it just appalls me that we haven’t done it until now. And so, as I kind of look at that, that cost of you know, even $30 million a year, that’s not much when we think of how much gets spent on social supports, and the benefit that would pay off to have kids not be hungry during school so they could learn and move on to a better life.

Rob  

Yeah, and that’s us buying the food. So, we purchase all the food that we put in the bags, we get some free milk, some free shelf stable milk from Kemp’s, which is a local dairy company here in town. Otherwise we buy everything else. And also thank you, Kemp’s. They’re not paying me for promoting them. And the milk actually tastes good, which is amazing. That is shelf stable milk that tastes good. Because otherwise we wouldn’t be providing it. But you know, that’s the $30 million. And again, that’s just a dartboard presumption. But that includes purchasing the food. So, we’re not just talking about like, well, and then we need to get the food. It’s like, no, that includes the food costs, to cover the weekends for potentially every kid in the state that needs it. So yeah, I mean, it’s not that it’s an abstract number. I mean, obviously, that’s a lot of money. But we’re not talking about a billion dollars or a trillion dollars, or even 100 million dollars, it’s a pretty swallowable cost.

Kurt 

And I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t, you know, kind of point out a couple of things from the data perspective. You know, one of the reasons I think that this has gone, undetected by many people in our community is it doesn’t affect populations evenly. And what I mean by that is when we look at the data around food insecurity, not just at a child level, but at a household level, Minnesota is pretty well off, right, we have kind of three-quarters of the risk of a household anywhere else in the country, Minnesota has only at 75% of that risk compared to the rest of the nation. People are doing pretty well food-wise, if you look statewide. And then as you narrow down, you know, by group, if you’ve looked at the Sheridan School in the area, and in, you know, north and northeast Minneapolis that you were mentioning, where you started, that risk for white families is still not that great, but it’s the black and indigenous and other peoples of color, their risk is 160% of that national average. And so, we haven’t distributed that risk evenly across our communities, which I think makes it easier for it to hide in pockets where we’re not aware. And so, I really like what you’re doing in sort of, you know, making this available to everyone and not putting tests in front of it that raised barriers that prevent people from getting access.

Rob  

Yeah, we’re all about removing barriers, anything that would inhibit a child from getting food. So, a form is a barrier, you know — fill out your income, and your household minus your health insurance, plus your tips, minus your whatever — whatever the forms are, like, we don’t do any of that stuff. We need your name, which bag you want, and what school you go to, basically. And then all that stays at the school. So, it’s very private, we don’t have any of that information. But yeah, I mean, I think there’s hunger or food insecurity or poverty overflows within equities, like it’s bursting out of the issue is these inequities that families face, where someone who has the same color of skin as I do is much as much less likely to face food insecurity. And someone who doesn’t, is more likely to and for nothing they did, right? Especially the kids, right? You can’t say that the kids did something wrong, which I don’t tend to agree with overall, but even if when people are like, well, you know, something about bootstraps and whatever, and I’m like, well, that’s fine, whatever, you can think that but these are kids, you know, black/brown kids in our community that are going to school and they’re hungry, and they are more likely to be to face that problem. And it’s just a horrible inequity that one of the many that they face and that are bound in our community. And you know, also it’s not only a black/brown kid problem, right? So, you know, one thing we want to make sure — it’s kind of a tricky balance because we want people to be clear, like there are these inequities. And also, it’s not just those communities so it is inequitable in it. When we’re talking about inequities, it’s not fair that it’s more in this community. But it’s not only that community, it’s every community. It’s every skin color, it’s everyone. And we can do things to put special focus, like the different dietary preferences bags to make sure that families who are from East Africa have a food that makes sense to them or Southeast Asia has, you know, curry and sardines in their bag, you know, we don’t put the sardines in the homeless one, necessarily, or the mobile bag. But you know, that’s part of it is, you know, at Thanksgiving time, we don’t only give out Thanksgiving meals, because a lot of the kids don’t eat Thanksgiving meals, like we do in America, or they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving for various reasons, or they don’t eat, they’ve never cooked a turkey, they don’t know what a frozen turkey does, or they don’t have a kitchen. Right? So, you know, it’s about serving the kids and families in a way that makes sense to them that, like I said, is relevant to them, not to me. Because many, many, many of the families wouldn’t eat what I eat. And I wouldn’t eat what they eat. I don’t eat sardines. I’m not, you know, I’m not on board with that. But they wouldn’t eat mac and cheese because they have no idea what it is. So, it’s all about providing the right food to the kids that need it.

Kurt 

You know, I have to say this conversation, I really like how you’ve broken down the problem, right? You started with the food is not in the bellies of the kids who need it, and we have enough. So, it’s not a supply problem. It’s a distribution problem. So, we’re gonna buy food, and we’re going to give it to the kids who need it. And that just seems like such a simple way to connect the dots between a need and the desired outcome. I think we could use a lot more of that problem solving around a number of different aspects of barriers that people face in our communities.

Rob  

Well, and again, food insecurity or hunger itself, it’s not complicated. What you just said, like, that solves it. Get the right food, get it to the right people. Like that’s the solution. I mean, obviously, there’s a whole bunch of stuff in there. But that solves hunger — food insecurity or hunger. It’s almost like the solution is so simple, that it’s like, feels too simple for the severity of the problem. Like this is a huge problem. The impact it has on these kids is huge. It’s, like we said before, it’s their behavior, it’s their brain and physical development, it’s their test scores, it’s the future. It’s all these things. And that’s a huge problem, it’s a lot of kids. And it’s a huge issue for those kids. And the solution’s pretty straightforward. And it’s not that expensive. And it’s just sort of like, oh, well, that’s, that’s not that hard. Right? Like, oh, well, we can do that. And obviously, it is hard, there are details, but the function of it or the structure of it is pretty straightforward. If they don’t have food, let’s give them food, and make sure it’s food they want to eat. And when they eat it, it’s helpful. So yeah, there’s no real need to overcomplicate it.

Kurt 

I love it. And I think that’s really inspiring. If our listeners want to get involved, how can they help? How can they help you or help in their own communities?

Rob  

Yeah, well, you can go to everymeal.org, which is our website, we have lots of volunteer opportunities to come assemble the bags that we give out to the kids. So, we assemble like meal bags, kind of like serving children, but no hair nets, and scoops and stuff. It’s all like cans and boxes and bags of food. Also, certainly donations, I mentioned we had to increase from $3 million to $6 million every year to keep going to serve these 552 schools in these 35 or so school districts in the state of Minnesota. And then the biggest impact is actually sort of a combination of those two, and it’s called sponsorship, sponsoring a school. So, it’s sort of another term would be like adopting a school, we just feel like that’s a little bit of a paternalistic term. So, we say sponsoring a school. So, faith communities, businesses, Rotary Clubs. We have lots of like financial firms or like real estate companies, that kind of thing. Really any entity, other nonprofits, any entity that wants to engage with the local school that we work with, and that means typically helping then distribute the food. We deliver the food bags to the schools, then they get distributed discreetly into the kids backpacks in their lockers while they’re in class. So, our bags go inside the kids’ normal backpack, it’s not visible externally to anyone. We really want to retain the dignity for the kids and family. But that volunteer opportunity is super meaningful and impactful, you learn a lot about a kids’ situation by looking at their locker. And, two, it’s a great way to engage with your local community. Our partners have done a lot more with schools than just this food now. So, they do reading programs, tutoring programs, even just like, you know, restocking the library, which just takes bodies, right. And then we don’t want to be a much of a burden on the school. So by having volunteers actually do this distribution, you know, some of our schools have, you know, 200 kids in it that are participating in the program, and that would take the three-quarter time social worker a quarter of the time to do that distribution. So, having volunteers there to actually do the distribution makes a big impact in supporting the school. And then we ask for funding to help cover the costs of the program in that school. So those sponsors, the three things they do is the relationship with the school, volunteering at the school, and funding the school. And it’s just very tangible. You get to see your work. It’s pretty awesome. But you can learn about all those things at everymeal.org. And actually, also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say we used to be called the Sheridan Story, but we changed the name, because Sheridan is a very bad person, turns out, so we’re now Every Meal formerly the Sheridan Story, and people are like I know this organization, but they’re not called Every Meal. So that’s us, just a different name.

Kurt

Wonderful. Rob, thank you very much for sharing your story today and I look forward to learning more about Every Meal as you continue to grow.

Rob

Thank you so much, thanks for getting the word out.

For information on how to donate, sponsor a School, or volunteer, visit everymeal.org/get-involved.