Karl Lane, his wife and his kids come to the Loaves and Fishes free lunch at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Hastings almost every day.

On Tuesday, it was just him, two of his sons - Maxwell and Lincoln - and his daughter Willow. Three of the kids were at a summer camp for veteran's families and his wife was training for a new job.

Lane said that he and his wife like to take the kids as a way to keep structure in their days, a continuation of the school year, and the kids enjoy it. The meal is followed by the Summer Programs, Arts and Recreations for Kids, or SPARK program and its various offerings, giving the kids a chance to check out a fire truck or grab a free library book.

But this summer, SPARK has taken a more important role in the family's life.

Lane has a disability and recent trouble with employment, making frequent trips to the free meal more than just a way to fill their stomachs, but a boon on the family budget as well.

"Financially it has been a life saver," Lane said.

Lane and his family are some of roughly 60 to 70 people, mostly kids, who typically attend the free lunches open to everyone. Organizers said that some come for the good food or because it's simply fun - not necessarily due to food insecurity at home.

But the meal, available for the last four years in Hastings, is steeped in addressing food insecurity, said Jane Steinke, an intern with the Loaves and Fishes organization, which is based out of Minneapolis and organizes the meal in conjunction with Hastings organizations. Loaves and Fishes targets impoverished areas for its meal offerings, she said.

"[We] specifically target counties and areas that are low poverty areas," Steinke said. "That's how they located a good area to start a kitchen."

Local food insecurity

In Hastings, food insecurity can often be a situational problem, said Chris Koop, Hastings Family Service executive director.

The organization offers a food shelf and while it serves hundreds of people a month, often the people that come in are only seen less than three times a year, she said.

"The people are using the [food shelf] as a bridge when they're in a crisis situation," Koop said. "There are times when we see them only once during a crisis time."

That signals that the organization is helping the patrons stay independent, and is being used as a last option, she said. In order to help in that role too, the group offers things like a Dakota County financial worker to assist patrons, she said.

"I do think we have less of a regular use because ... we are a hand up and not just a hand out," Koop said.

Since she started at the organization in 2005, Koop has seen the problem worsen as well. That year, surveys the organization did found that 23% of people using the food shelf had missed a meal due to lack of food. This year that number is at 47%, she said.

In the broader community, Minnesota Department of Education data shows that 22% of students in Hastings Public Schools receive free or reduced lunches.

Joint community efforts

The Loaves and Fishes lunches are one of the ways that local organizations are trying to address food insecurity in Hastings. These efforts at times intertwine together, with partnerships or joint planning.

For instance, two years ago the SPARK programming was moved to Our Saviour's Lutheran Church at the same time as the lunches as a way to help incentivize kids to get out to the meal and programming, said Mary Kocak, the food shelf director at Hastings Family Service. It's also a partnership between the Hastings YMCA, Hastings Community Education, the church and various other community groups like Black Dirt Theater.

"It draws kids in if you got something fun to do," Kocak said. "But the other thing is that each partner has a huge heart in offering something that is structured."

Over time, efforts have increased as well, with more programming and the YMCA offering a bus route that picks up kids to go to the church.

The organizers hope that while the meal offers a way of tackling hungry stomachs, it also helps bring people together.

"On so many levels it's such a great way to foster a community," Kocak said.

Local resources

• The Harbor Church offers the Harbor's Love in Action Community Food Distribution on the second Saturday of the month from 9-11 a.m. A $20 fee is charged, but voucher applications are available.

• Every Thursday at 6 p.m., one of four local churches hosts a rotating, free community dinner - Our Saviour's Lutheran Church, St. Elizabeth Seton Church, St. Phillip's Lutheran Church and Resurrection Methodist Church.

• Daily free lunch is served at Our Savior's Lutheran Church from noon to 1 p.m. through Loaves and Fishes.

• The Market at Hastings Family Service is open to anyone in need of food, call to make an appointment at 651-437-7134. The organization also offers other programs like the Meals on Wheels program for qualified persons for a fee.