Edina MealFund COVID-19 Response Team

Maggie McCracken and Kathy Rendleman prepare food for distributionAugust 2020 – Within the Edina Public Schools system, approximately 800 students – nearly 9 percent of those enrolled – are eligible for the school district’s free and reduced-price lunch program. Triple that number come from “cost-burdened households,” families where monthly income cannot reliably stretch to cover the basic costs for housing, transportation, healthcare and meals. 

Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is only adding to the economic strain on these families.  

There is a silver lining, however. “Edina is a generally prosperous and caring place,” noted Kathy Rendleman, Executive Director of the not-for-profit Edina Education Fund. Over time, those two community characteristics have nurtured “the development of a multi-organization support network for our students.” 

COVID-19 has given such organizations an historic opportunity to demonstrate their value – and their versatility and scalability, too. 

The Edina MealFund COVID-19 Response program offers a particularly impressive case in point. 

“MealFund was an existing program within Edina Public Schools, for which the Ed Fund serves as fiscal agent,” Rendleman explained. As the name suggests, that program covers cafeteria expenses for district families unable to zero out their balances. “A lot of people don’t realize that the government’s credit does not cover all student meal costs. That debt can mount.”

When the pandemic forced the closure of brick-and-mortar schools in mid-March, Rendleman and her colleagues knew that this important check against food insecurity would have to continue in a reimagined form.

“We began talking about adding dinners into the mix, figuring out distribution – and feeding not just our students, but parents and whoever else happens to live in that child’s household, as well.”

It was a daunting challenge, but one that EPS and the Edina Education Fund came to with certain advantages. Foremost among these, a broad coalition of partners stepped forward almost immediately to help. 

These included Edina Give and Go, a frequent partner of the Ed Fund. 

“Our typical work… focuses on ensuring students have access to the academic, arts and athletic opportunities that happen outside of the school day,” said Edina Give and Go Executive Director Maggie McCracken. “Think music lessons, driver’s ed instruction and summer activities.” In the 2018-19 school year alone, Give and Go unlocked 480 such opportunities for 250 students across the district.

“Food doesn’t usually enter into Give and Go’s mission work, but we realized that our families – who are [also MealFund’s] families – were struggling with basics in this especially difficult time. We also had connections and insights for MealFund COVID-19 to leverage.”

Knowing that food sourcing and preparation would outstrip local capacity, organizers tapped Bloomington-based Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People (VEAP) and Roseville-based The Sheridan Story to supply many of the meals.

Even with a reliable supply chain in place, though, the MealFund COVID-19 Response program could not have gotten off the ground – let alone proven sustainable – without the financial support of private donors.

“We set a bold goal of $75,000,” McCracken said. “We made sure the ‘ask’ was clear and broadly shared … but even so, the response was truly overwhelming.” Launched in late March, the fundraising component of the program reached and passed the $60,000 mark by April 1. Ultimately, the new MealFund raised about $100,000 (after which point organizers began encouraging would-be donors to share their largesse with other, likeminded community initiatives). 

“As our forecast looks now, we should be able to provide meals support all summer and all fall, finishing in November,” Rendleman said. 

Program partners have distributed tens of thousands of meals. They have done so through a mix of pick-ups at Valley View and South View middle schools and delivery routes crisscrossing Edina. 

In a less tangible but equally meaningful way, Rendleman and McCracken think that the COVID-19 MealFund will pay dividends well beyond November. “This collaboration allowed [the local nonprofit community] to build tighter relationships and clarity around how to support our community. We’ve set a new standard for how to come together in big ways for our students.”

Mayor Jim Hovland selected the Edina MealFund COVID-19 Response program for the 2020 Mayor’s Service to Youth Commendation. Awards were presented to Rendleman and McCracken, who accepted on behalf of their organizations.