Placing hope in children’s backpacks: the impact of Every Meal

Bethel University alumni seek to end childhood hunger in Minnesota through Every Meal, one of the largest childhood food security programs in the country. Together, they redefine what it means to be a world-changer, encouraging others to partner with God to serve their local neighborhoods from the streets of Minneapolis to the suburbs of Wayzata.

By Hannah Hunhoff ’24, student writer

May 22, 2024 | 12:30 p.m.

Every Meal Board Chair Jenna Soule ’95 stands on a stage in front of a crowd sitting at tables in Every Meal’s warehouse.

Every Meal Board Chair Jenna Soule ’95 stands on a stage in Every Meal’s warehouse at its breakfast and warehouse tour event on Thursday, May 9. Since 2015, Soule has generously donated her time and expertise to Every Meal, specifically supporting their marketing and development efforts. Photos by Sarah Bakeman ’24

On May 10, music blasts as volunteers from Trinity Lutheran church, Assured Partners, and other community partners pack meals at color-coded stations. Each flag’s color indicates the type of Every Meal food bag that will be packed. At the start of the yellow flag assembly line, volunteers pack peaches, a can of ravioli pasta, a can of green beans, packets of protein granola, and an assortment of dried fruit. Each bag is carefully tied, placed in a box, passed across the long silver-wheeled table, and finally stacked on a blue platform. In 30-45 minutes, they’ve packed 462 bags—1,771 meals.

Halfway into the session, fifth and sixth graders from St. Michael - Albertville Schools join for the district’s exploratory day and pack 3,366 bags—12,892 meals. Their teacher emphasizes "kids helping kids" as they assist their own classmates and friends in the local community.

A team of volunteers pack canned food at Every Meal’s warehouse in Roseville, Minnesota.

A team of volunteers assemble food bags at Every Meal’s warehouse in Roseville, Minnesota. Every Meal, a nonprofit started by Bethel alumnus Rob Williams ’07, provides meals to over 12,000 Minnesota students at 450 sites each week.

The beginnings of Every Meal

Every Meal’s story began with 27 kindergartners at Las Estrellas Dual Language School, a principal's heartbreaking revelation, and the aid of two churches. Fourteen years later, Bethel graduates CEO Rob Williams ’07 and Board Chair Jenna Soule ’95 along with a team of 32 employees and numerous volunteers have grown Every Meal into a nonprofit that provides meals to over 12,000 Minnesota students at 450 sites weekly. Every Meal is determined to end childhood food insecurity in Minnesota—where over 300,000 children face this issue every day. “For me, it’s about being a world changer in whatever world you deem to be your part of your own. There are a lot of important things to do to change the world,” says Williams, who majored in media communication at Bethel. “So, people should do whatever they can in their own world."

Williams still remembers attending a 2010 meeting at Las Estrellas Dual Language School (formerly Sheridan Elementary School), where the principal approached a Mill City Church pastor and revealed that students were placing food in their pockets every Friday. These children were also experiencing behavioral issues leading up to the weekend and arriving back to school on Monday feeling restless and sluggish. “It’s not just about the physical sensation of hunger,” Williams says. “It's really about the impact that the lack of nutrition has on the kids more holistically and long term.” The principal asked: “Is there anything your church can do to help our school?” In response, Williams and other church members walked over to Sentyrz Supermarket and purchased snacks at discounted prices. The snacks were then placed in the 27 kindergartners’ backpacks on Friday.

“For me, it’s about being a world changer in whatever world you deem to be your part of the world. There are a lot of important things to do to change the world. So, people should do whatever they can in their own world.”

— Rob Williams ’07, founder and CEO of Every Meal

Looking back, Mill City Church Lead Pastor Stephanie O’Brien ’05, S’12—a frequent speaker in Bethel University Chapel and Williams’ sister—credits Every Meal’s early success to the collaborative efforts of Mill City Church and partner Woodridge Church. Many of these church members remain volunteers, board members, and generous financial supporters today. One of those Woodridge church members and early volunteers was Soule. When Soule first started volunteering for Every Meal in 2015, she initially assumed that her volunteer group would be assigned to a school in Minneapolis, but the Every Meal coordinator directed her to a school in her own backyard in Wayzata. This would later contribute to a new revelation: “Hunger doesn’t care where you live.”

Nutritious, delicious, and relevant

Soule emphasizes that each meal at Every Meal is nutritious, delicious, and relevant. “When we talk about relevancy, what we're meaning is that it has to be culturally relevant to the kid,” says Soule, who majored in communication at Bethel. “Just because we give out free food, that doesn't mean that everyone is going to use it. Just because something's free, if it's not something that you or your family is used to eating or meeting the dietary or cultural guidelines of your family, it’s not something that will be useful.”

Meals are offered in five unique bags—a blue bag catered to East African dietary preferences, a green bag with a wide variety of familiar foods like pasta and veggies, an orange bag catered to Latino dietary preferences, a purple bag catered to Southeast Asian dietary preferences, and a yellow bag with foods that require minimal preparation. At each of Every Meal’s 450 sites, students select which type of meal they’d like to receive when they enroll. All meals are approved by a dietitian and taste-tested to ensure that the students receive high-quality meals.

“When we talk about relevancy, what we're meaning is it has to be culturally relevant to the kid. We have found over the years that just because we give out free food, that doesn't mean that everyone is going to use it.”

— Jenna Soule ’95, board chair of Every Meal
Every Meal Board Chair Jenna Soule chats with long-time supporters during a tour of the nonprofit's warehouse.

At an Every Meal Breakfast and warehouse tour sponsored by its board of directors on May 9, Board Chair Jenna Soule ’95 interacts with professionals, philanthropists, and long-time supporters of Every Meal.

Every Meal is entirely community-funded and spends between $2.5 million and $3 million each year on food. Currently, Every Meal has over 190 schools on its waiting list, meaning that around 3,000 students’ backpacks are ready to receive an Every Meal food bag every Friday afternoon.

Finding a deeper purpose

About 17% of U.S. households with children are food insecure, but in March 2023, Gov. Tim Walz approved the Free Meals for Kids Program, which led Minnesota to become one of eight states to offer free breakfast and lunch programs across the entire state. Before that, low-income students received free meals through the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Still, thousands of students hear their bellies rumble every Friday afternoon and wonder if they will have enough to eat over the next two days, indicating that Every Meal has an opportunity to support the food insecurity gap over the weekend.

And Every Meal leaders see their program making a difference. Williams notes “90% of school respondents say that Every Meal helped improve kids’ lives socially, behaviorally and academically, as well built their self-esteem and aided schools in fostering relationships with families.” Williams believes that many student meal recipients may not be aware that Every Meal is responsible for supporting their nutritional needs, but he says there is no reason for them to know.

William’s reason for his work at Every Meal will always be linked to the words in red in Matthew 25. This is the passage where Jesus speaks of separating the sheep from the goats. He challenges His people to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit people in prison. At the end of the day, Williams believes that God works powerfully through His people and it's their choice or not to respond. “If you look at the Bible story holistically, cover-to-cover, it's really about engaging with your community and especially for those who are in a worse off situation than you are,” Williams says.

A tangible way to provide hope

While numerous individuals can speak to the issue of childhood hunger, educators possess a unique perspective. In the fall of 2023, Soule stood by the Every Meal interactive holiday display at the Mall of America, which thousands of shoppers walked past each day. One teacher took a moment to stop and introduce herself to Soule and another Every Meal employee. The teacher’s eyes welled up in tears, as she shared a heartwarming message: “Thank you so much for what you guys do. You bring food to my school, and you serve many of the kids in my classroom. These are my kids. I know that they'll have food because you guys brought it here, and I don't have to worry about them.”


Every Meal boxes are filled with five different food bags, which feed 12,000 kids a week. CEO and founder Rob Williams '07 and Board Chair Jenna Soule '95 emphasize that it serves as more than a bag of food, but a message of hope as well.

Soule was touched by the way the teacher referred to her students as “her kids” and shared that they truly needed Every Meal’s help. “It's moments like the encounter I had with the teacher that remind me of why Every Meal exists,” Soule says. “It’s so much more than budgets, or committee meetings, or even a bag of food. It’s a tangible way to provide hope to kids.”

Mill City Church continues to allocate funds to support Every Meal's efforts at Las Estrellas Dual Language School. Beyond the number of meals packed and the number of kids supported, O’Brien believes that Every Meal has helped churches and other organizations forge genuine connections with schools.

Drawing from Acts 1:2, O'Brien says that when churches think about witnessing in Jerusalem, Judea, and the ends of the earth, they often feel led to go to the ends of the earth before they serve the part of the world that is closest to them. However, for O’Brien and Mill City Church, their mission field is right outside the church doors—it’s a gateway to meaningful relationships with their Minneapolis neighbors. “We could never measure the relational depth and fruitfulness that has come from all the schools starting to trust the churches,” O’Brien says.

On Thursday, May 9, about 50 professionals, philanthropists, and long-time supporters gathered in Every Meal’s Roseville warehouse for a breakfast and warehouse tour sponsored by the board of directors. Wearing her green Every Meal top underneath a black blazer, Soule shares Every Meal’s origin story. She talks about the 12,000 kids who receive food and hope each week. She speaks of the profound impact of Every Meal in the fight against childhood hunger. As she talks, she stands on stage in front of a large banner that reads, “Good food is nutritious, delicious, and relevant.”

If you are interested in learning more about Every Meal and supporting its mission through volunteering or financial donations, check out its website here.

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