By Stephanie Mork, Open Arms Photojournalist Intern
Ever since moving into the new building on Bloomington Avenue, Open Arms has been continuously reaching new heights to have a positive effect on the surrounding community. In the past few years, Open Arms has been able to use their space to help kids in the neighborhood who rely on school lunches during the school year stay well-nourished throughout the summer. The Summer Meals Program at Open Arms, with support from the Department of Education, has partnered with two sites – one at the East Phillips Park Cultural and Community Center and one at the Pillsbury House on Chicago Avenue.
The program began in 2011. “I started looking around at different ways Open Arms could partner with the community and found that kids in summer programs were getting meals that were not exciting, or particularly nutritious,” explained Evelyn Balsells, a former Chuck Green Fellow from Macalester College who interned at Open Arms. “Because they were produced en masse, there was no room for fresh foods or any flexibility with the menu and the kids weren’t eating it.”
Evelyn saw great potential for better food for these kids in a partnership with Open Arms. “I started looking into a few things as a part of my fellowship project,” Evelyn said. “What was available, how were people feeling about the service, what were the administration problems, and how could Open Arms do this.”
By working with former Open Arms Executive Director Kevin Winge, the kitchen staff at Open Arms and members of the Minnesota Department of Education, Evelyn researched the possibility of Open Arms being a part of the Department of Education’s Summer Food Service Program. “I created a proposal for Open Arms to lay out what they would have to do to sign up,” Evelyn said. Little did she know her proposal would be accepted and Open Arms would be serving over 6,800 meals each summer starting in 2011.
The Summer Food Service Program is funded by the Minnesota Department of Education, and has strict guidelines on what kinds of foods need to be served to meet standards and be reimbursed by the government. The program was launched to ensure kids who depend on school lunches during the year could have access to good meals year round. More than 700 sites and 170 schools in the state have partnered with the Minnesota Department of Education to serve about 2.4 million meals each summer.
Emily Olson, a recent college grad from UW Lacrosse, is one of the 2016 Americorps members working with Open Arms at the Pillsbury House; she serves breakfast and lunch to day camp kids Monday through Friday. “Breakfast is a baked good and a fruit and we always have to serve milk. For lunch we must have a meat or meat alternative, two fruits and vegetables and a grain,” Emily explained. “We have to keep with the specific amounts for the meals to meet standards and be reimbursed by the Minnesota Department of Education.”
Emily has seen the daily impact the meals have on children of all different backgrounds. “For lunch, so many of the kids are blown away by something as simple as spaghetti and meatballs, but I think they are just not getting great food at home,” Emily explained. “I think a lot of them get food, but it’s not homecooked.”
Emily’s experience with the program has made her excited to work with at-risk youth in a hands-on nonprofit setting in the future. She enjoyed her time helping Open Arms serve 5,226 meals to about 300 kids this summer.
Evelyn is now pursuing a Ph.D at the University of Edinburgh. She spoke fondly of Open Arms and seeing her ideas come to life when she came back to visit the program, saying “It was sweet because everybody was asking for seconds. The kids were like, ‘YUM, I’ve never had anything like this before!’”
From its beginning to now, the summer meals program at Open Arms has been dreamt up and run by mostly young professionals or college students, and is a perfect way for Open Arms to invest in the people through the Twin Cities. The Summer Meals Program serves local kids, the surrounding community and even people like Emily and Evelyn who work behind the scenes.
“Open Arms gave me the opportunity to give them a sustainable solution and they actually implemented it with a huge commitment,” Evelyn said. “It was a huge confidence boost to have them believe in me.”