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editor's note-Cultivating Hunger Relief-June 2011
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editor's note-Cultivating Hunger Relief-June 2011

Social entrepreneurialism is hard at work as a coalition gears up to provide an additional 100 million meals to needy Minnesotans.

On a flight from Phoenix to Minneapolis a while back, I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in years. We sat together and caught up on life, and she mentioned how she was helping to promote a food shelf because demand was picking up so much. Great cause, I thought, picturing needy-looking people walking into a dilapidated building in Frogtown or north Minneapolis. But she surprised me when she said this food shelf is in Minnetonka. Increasingly, its customers are from neighborhoods where, given the kinds of cars in the driveways and the sizes of the homes, one wouldn’t expect to find someone on the verge of going hungry. 

Since then, I’ve learned more about the hidden hunger problem in Minnesota. So hidden, there’s a good chance someone you know may be experiencing it. To some folks, the thinking is: Keep the house, keep the car, keep up the appearance that things are still okay, and skimp on food spending if need be—who will know? For many others, car and home have long since been lost; food is their highest priority, but is difficult if not impossible to afford.

The University of Minnesota Food Industry Center recently researched the issue and found that there are some 965,000 families across the state that are now missing an average of two dinners a week. That’s 100 million meals a year in a state known for its abundance in food production.

Some of us might initially say skipping a meal here or there doesn’t seem that bad. Many of us could afford to lose a few points, and who hasn’t felt hunger? But this is ongoing, nutrition-depriving hunger we’re talking about here—the kind that slows a child’s development, hinders one’s ability to learn or to do a job well, and destroys the body over time. A related Food Industry Center study found that hunger predisposes individuals to health problems and psychological and social dysfunctions that can result in higher health care costs and poorer education outcomes. This costs you, me, and other Minnesota taxpayers an estimated $1.62 billion a year.

This month, an organization called Hunger Free Minnesota plans to launch a collaborative campaign designed to close the hunger gap in Minnesota. Specifically, it plans to fill those 100 million meals currently going unserved each year. And best of all is how it plans to achieve such a goal.

Hunger Free is a coalition of business and community leaders; communities of faith; food banks, shelves, and pantries; and government agencies. Its primary organizers are Second Harvest Heartland and five other Feeding America food banks, Hunger Solutions Minnesota,  and the Greater Twin Cities United Way. Corporations involved thus far include Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, Boston Consulting, Cargill, and General Mills.

Instead of being another do-good group that spends money as quickly as donations come to it, Hunger Free is taking a pragmatic, businesslike approach to solving a problem by partnering with others, and improving existing means of helping those who cannot afford food. In so doing, it’s demonstrating the type of social entrepreneurialism we write about in this month’s cover story: How those who want to do good are more often thinking like businesspeople first. It’s, “Want to achieve a goal? What’s your business plan?”—rather than, “Want to help change the world? Who will donate funds to help you?”

Another plus about Hunger Free is that success in helping the needy will help all Minnesotans. Reducing hunger also will reduce the $1.6 billion-plus in hunger-related costs we end up covering each year.

Boston Consulting conducted a study and found that only 45 percent of eligible Minnesotans are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). That’s leaving as much as $210 million in food money on the table. According to the study, the two most common reasons that individuals don’t tap this free food assistance is that they don’t believe they’re eligible for enrollment, or they’re deterred by cumbersome administrative requirements. Minnesota trails all but seven other states in SNAP participation, yet places sixth highest in the nation in SNAP administration costs.

Boston Consulting and Hunger Free have identified six ways that Minnesota’s SNAP administration process can be improved to bring in another 148,000 eligible folks. That would bring in the $210 million left on the table.

“We have developed a concrete business plan that is being applied to a social issue,” says Ellie Lucas, chief campaign officer for Hunger Free Minnesota. “We’re now taking it into the field with the on-the-ground combat folks who run food shelves and pantries, others in the nonprofit sector, stakeholders on the corporate side, and others.” The outreach includes a series of listening sessions recently conducted with 350 community groups across the state.

Hunger Free is raising $20 million in cash and in-kind contributions to increase food distribution through the state’s existing emergency food network by 50 million meals; increase awareness and applications in SNAP to add 30 million meals; and maximize existing nutrition programs for children such as school breakfasts, adding 20 million meals.

The organization also has identified three food sources in Minnesota that are ripe for the picking. The state has a large surplus of potatoes, peas, and sweet corn that go unharvested every year. Hunger Free plans to harvest, process and distribute those vegetables to food shelves, after that produce is properly processed. 

The individuals behind Hunger Free have developed a smart, doable business plan that they now plan to test on the front line before rolling out full force. It will be interesting to watch how well they do, and how quickly they can reach their goal of serving up 100 million additional meals statewide.

Their work also will be on my mind this summer every time I’m enjoying a picnic, driving by lush green fields of corn, or picking up fresh produce at a local farmers market.

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