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Changing Worlds by Fighting Child Hunger

Becoming world-changers, one of Bethel’s core values, may sound like a lofty goal. But to Rob Williams ’07, being a world-changer means changing the worlds of those around him. He’s doing this as founder and executive director of Every Meal (formerly the Sheridan Story), and he was recently recognized as one of Bethel’s first 4 Under 40 Alumni Achievement Award recipients.

By Cherie Suonvieri ’15, content specialist

December 17, 2020 | 9 a.m.

Rob Williams '07

Rob Williams '07, founder and executive director of Every Meal

Whenever a younger Rob Williams ’07 was asked what his hopes and plans were for after college, his answer wasn’t specific, but it was certain: “I just want to help people who need help,” he’d say. Now, 13 years after graduating from Bethel, Williams is the founder and executive director of Every Meal, an organization that works to provide over 200,000 meals a month to children and families in Minnesota. 

Bethel recently recognized Williams as one of the first 4 Under 40 Alumni Achievement Award recipients, for his commitment to service in his community and beyond. His passion for helping others can be traced back to his childhood. Williams grew up a “Billy Graham kid”—meaning his father worked for Billy Graham’s ministry, so his family traveled often. He was born in Amsterdam, lived in England for a period of time, and then his family settled in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

When Williams was 5 years old, his father was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that causes lung damage and produces symptoms similar to lung cancer. With his father’s illness coloring his daily life, Williams learned the world was bigger than himself at a young age. “As a kid, you want it to be all about you, right?” he says. “But with my dad’s illness it couldn’t be. I soon learned about what it meant to care for others and to look beyond just my own needs.”

Williams was 15 years old when his father died, after living years longer than originally projected. In addition to understanding the value of service, his father instilled in him the importance of recognizing passion, a principle so impactful that Williams had the word tattooed on his arm. His passion for serving others has made him the type of person who notices ways to support people—ways that might otherwise be overlooked.

Williams went on to major in media communication and minor in leadership studies at Bethel, where he enjoyed the opportunities to practice leadership outside of the classroom. Over the years, he served as a director for Student Activities, a resident assistant, and an assistant resident director. One of Bethel’s core values, “world-changer,” is a value that has stuck with him in the years since graduation. “World-changer seems kind of bold, but I don’t think the point is that everyone from Bethel is going to ‘change the world,’” Williams says. “Rather, everyone from Bethel is going to change their world.”

“Whatever your world is, ask yourself how you can change it for the better…The world I find myself in, there’s hundreds of thousands of kids who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from—and I’m not okay with that being in my world. That’s what we’re working to change.”

— Rob Williams ’07

In 2010, Williams was attending Mill City Church, which meets in Sheridan Elementary School’s auditorium in Northeast Minneapolis. A new church plant, Mill City was seeking ways to partner with Sheridan, so they started conversations with administration and attended site council meetings to build relationships with the school. While their efforts were met with some skepticism at first, eventually an administrator brought a very specific need to a Mill City pastor’s attention. Some students were pocketing extra food at lunch on Fridays to eat during the weekend. The same students seemed to be exhibiting behavioral issues leading up to the weekend and were sluggish on Monday from the lack of nutrition. Students were hungry and wrestling with food insecurity. In response to that need, Every Meal (formerly the Sheridan Story) was born. 

It started with 27 kindergarteners in October 2010. Mill City worked to buy, pack, and send bags of food home with the students over the weekend. Williams ran the effort as a volunteer, helping to coordinate the food packing events. Over the next two years, the program expanded to reach all students at the elementary school. “Offering meals to the whole school had always been our goal,” Williams says. “After we reached that goal, that allowed us to think about how we could serve all the other kids.” 

According to Williams, over 200,000 children in Minnesota live in food insecurity (now more than 300,000 since the COVID-19 pandemic began). The Every Meal team started brainstorming ways to meet the need. They wondered if they could get other churches, companies, or faith communities to partner with schools, like Mill City did with Sheridan, but soon realized the barriers: the logistics, like sourcing the food, buying the food, and packing the food.  

Williams worked for an international logistics company during the early years of Every Meal, which gave him a unique perspective to approach the issue. He views food insecurity not as a supply problem but as a distribution problem. “There’s plenty of food available, it’s just a matter of getting it into the hands, homes, and ultimately the bellies of the kids that need it,” Williams says. He knew Every Meal had the distribution down, so they decided to pilot an expansion in five elementary schools for the 2013-14 school year. Then, in May 2014, Williams left his corporate job to run Every Meal full time.

“For me, it came down to the fact that there’s this significant problem of kids living in food insecurity, and I had a way that I thought might solve it,” William says. “I had to try it. How do you say no?” 

Since then, Every Meal’s impact has exploded. Today, they serve more than 400 locations and well over 10,000 children a year—and since the pandemic began, they’ve provided more than 2.6 million meals to students in Minnesota. Every Meal’s staff has grown, too, from what was once just Williams to now 25 full-time employees. And none of it would be possible without the community response, whether it’s supporting Every Meal’s work financially, engaging with schools, or volunteering to pack and distribute meals. “Childhood hunger is a relatively hidden thing, but when communities learn about the issue they respond. To me, that’s biblical justice,” Williams says. “From my understanding, biblical justice doesn’t mean getting rewards or punishment based on what you deserve. It’s making sure everybody in a community has what they need to prosper.” 

Since the pandemic hit Minnesota in March 2020, Every Meal (formerly the Sheridan Story) has provided over 2.6 million meals. Prior to the pandemic, Every Meal would provide around 1 million meals a year.

Williams invites anyone interested in volunteering or otherwise supporting the cause to visit Every Meal’s website for more information. But if addressing food insecurity isn’t your calling, Williams would urge you to figure out what is. “Identify what you’re passionate about and do something about it,” he says. “If everyone did a little more of that, the world would be a much better place.”

Nominate Someone for the 4 Under 40 Alumni Achievement Award

Bethel University’s National Alumni Board annually seeks and accepts nominations for the 4 Under 40 Alumni Achievement Award. The selection is made from Bethel University graduates 40 years of age or younger who have had outstanding achievements in career, public service, and/or volunteer activities.

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