The Brainerd Family YMCA is helping to ensure with its new evening meal program no child goes to bed hungry amid school closures related to the coronavirus.

The nonprofit started providing free ready-to-cook meals on Tuesday, March 24, to families with children ages 18 and under, so they have uninterrupted access to healthy and nutritious foods.

“We’ve partnered with the (Brainerd) school district. We’re going to be at every site where they’re delivering breakfast and lunch, but we’re also going to be setting up and delivering an evening meal,” said Shane Riffle, CEO of the Brainerd Family YMCA.

Some Brainerd area schools are already offering free bagged breakfasts and lunches to children during weekdays because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A school is definitely filling a big need by providing lunches and breakfast to any kid under 18 in the community who has a need … but there’s a gap in that — evening meals,” Riffle said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1 in 7 children in the United States is combating hunger, and because of school closures related to COVID-19, those children are even more at risk of food insecurity.

“And we know that to be strong and thrive and do well in school, kids need three good meals per day, so there was a gap that we saw that needed to be filled,” Riffle said of the Brainerd Family YMCA’s evening meal program.

The Brainerd Family YMCA partnered with the USDA and The Outreach Program of Brainerd Lakes for the evening meal program. Riffle said the Brainerd Family YMCA distributed more than 170 free meals Tuesday to compliment the school-provided breakfast and lunches.

“The Outreach Program started as a nonprofit to help end global hunger. But they realized there was a huge demand here, locally, so they refocused their efforts and were actually looking for a partner, locally, to help develop a process to get their meals out to the community,” Riffle said.

In the early years of The Outreach Program, the focus was on packing for international food aid to countries such as Haiti, Syria, Sierra Leone and others. Last year, international shipments included places such as Haiti, Tanzania, Venezuela and the Bahamas.

Each of the packages contains 66 grams of protein, dehydrated vegetables, 21 essential vitamins and minerals, and has a shelf life of two years.

“We realized that there was a lot of potential to create a sustainable partnership, so that we could feed low-income kids in the community, year-round, instead of just (because of) the emergency,” Riffle said of The Outreach Program.

The Outreach Program of Brainerd Lakes began as Kids Against Hunger — Brainerd Lakes Area in 2012 but was rebranded in November and is now a community associate with The Outreach Program.

The Outreach Program’s food packages provide six nutritionally complete servings to feed starving children for about the cost of 30 cents per serving, according to its website.

“We are going to be submitting grants through YMCA of the USA, and they have relationships with Walmart. Walmart provides a lot of this funding for YMCAs, through their foundation,” Riffle said of program costs.

The Outreach Program’s food packages have been developed with nutritionists, according to its website — a food formula consisting of rice, fortified soy protein, vegetables and essential vitamins and minerals.

“And the great thing is these packages — to prepare them — all you have to do is add boiling water. And there are six servings per package, so one package can feed almost an entire family of four,” Riffle said.

A macaroni and cheese dish, rice and bean, and a pasta with Italian tomato basil sauce have been developed, as well, for distribution to local food banks and pantries for the food insecure in the United States.

“Any kid under 18 just has to show up, and they can receive a meal. Actually, if their family shows up, we're not going to turn anyone down. If the family shows up and they need a meal, we’re going to distribute a meal to them,” Riffle said.

The YMCA’s food program is part of a year-round effort to address child hunger. The YMCA is working to secure food program funding, so the nonprofit’s work with The Outreach Program can continue year-round and serve those neighborhoods with the most need.

“During times of uncertainty, families can count on the Y to provide essential services for the community,” Riffle said.

YMCA evening meals

Brainerd Family YMCA provides free evening meal packets from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. weekdays at:

  • Washington Educational Services Building, 804 Oak St., Brainerd.

  • Garfield Elementary, 1120 NE 10th Ave., Brainerd.

  • Riverside Elementary, 220 NW Third St., Brainerd.

  • Forestview Middle School, 12149 Knollwood Drive, Baxter.

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FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.