Volunteers are needed across the Iron Range this summer!
Click each site below to view the current volunteer needs for that location:
- Cook - 6 dates needed
- Keewatin - 4 dates needed
- Nashwauk - 5 dates needed
- Virginia HRA - 5 dates needed
Thanks to volunteers from across the region, the following sites are fully staffed for this summer!
- Hibbing Bennett Park
- Hibbing HRA Playground
- Hoyt Lakes
- Mountain Iron
- Virginia AEOA
- Virginia Olcott Park
What to expect: Volunteers pick up coolers at a designated location in their community, transport coolers to Meet Up and Chow Down site, set up Meet Up and Chow Down signage, distribute and track lunches, and return materials to the pick up site for the next day's volunteers. All-told, expect about 1.5 hours/day.
The program is Monday through Thursday weekly. For ease in staffing we are asking that if you are able to volunteer that you select 1 day per week for the summer if possible. A basic training which takes about 30 minutes has to be completed prior to volunteering.
Thursday Meet Up and Chow Down volunteers will be joined by Summer Buddy Backpacks volunteers who will bring additional food for children to take home for the weekend.
What is Meet Up and Chow Down?
Meet Up and Chow Down is United Way of Northeastern Minnesota's free summer lunch program for children on the Iron Range. The program was piloted in 2016 in Chisholm; 1,680 meals were served. Over the summer of 2022, 12,023 Meet Up and Chow Down lunches were served at nine sites in Chisholm, Cook, Hibbing, Mt. Iron, Nashwauk, and Virginia. The program is provided through support from the USDA and Minnesota Department of Education's Summer Food Service Program. In 2023, the program has expanded to offer lunches in 13 sites across the region.
What is the Need?
More than 1,000 children in the United Way of Northeastern Minnesota (UWNEMN) service territory on the Iron Range are enrolled in the Buddy Backpack Program each school year. The UWNEMN Board and Staff recognized the need for a summer food program. School districts have also expressed a need for such a program in the summer, when the Buddy Backpack program is unavailable.
Federal and state government guidelines require that children must eat Meet Up and Chow Down lunches on-site. Volunteers are not able to hand out meals to children to take off-site.
Lunches for this program are provided entirely with funding from the USDA and Minnesota Department of Education (MDE)’s Summer Food Program. USDA and MDE require that meals be eaten on-site; UWNEMN would not receive funding to provide these meals if we did not follow this requirement.
The on-site meal requirement has always been a component of this program. An exception was made in the last two years due to the social distancing guidelines of the pandemic. USDA and MDE this year re-instated the on-site requirement and are strictly enforcing it in the wake of a Twin Cities-based fraud case in which individuals allegedly misappropriated $250 million in funds meant to feed children.
While we empathize with the frustration surrounding this re-instated requirement, we hope this provides some context and understanding. Furthermore, we ask families remember to be kind to the volunteers who are giving of their limited summer hours to hand out these meals out of the goodness of their hearts and care for our local children. They do not make the rules for the program; nor do we.
As much as we would love to offer this program in every community in our region, it is impossible for us to do so without significant community buy-in due to our limited staff and large service area.
In addition to the state and federal funding, this program could not operate in the communities it does without the following:
A safe public location (with rain option)
A USDA-approved kitchen willing/able to make meals following program guidelines four days a week
Enough volunteers to staff their community site from 12-1 pm Monday-Thursday June-August
If you are wondering why your community is not listed as a site, it is either because we were unable to secure a site, kitchen, and/or enough volunteers for your community – or because we have not yet begun the outreach process to find a site, kitchen, and volunteers. Every site must go through a lengthy state approval process so we only have ability to add a couple of new sites each summer. If you are committed to bringing this program to your community next year, reach out to us now to start the process!
There is one additional site in Gilbert that is still pending. We will continue to work on creative solutions to address transportation barriers to getting meals to this community until we’ve exhausted every option.
We know there is a critical need for programs like Meet Up and Chow Down throughout our region. We do the best we can to meet that need, one community at a time, and are incredibly grateful to the volunteers, sites, and kitchens that make it possible. The continued growth of this program – and even the frustration that spurred this message – show me people across northeastern Minnesota are passionate about feeding local children.