Thousands of families in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota will have access to free and healthy food, as UnitedHealth Group leads an effort to create and provide 21,000 meals each week — for the next eight-plus weeks — as part of its response to COVID-19. The partnership between UnitedHealth Group, Compass Group and Second Harvest Heartland comes as nonprofits report massive increases in the number of families who need help to access food.

UnitedHealth Group leaders devised the plan while looking to help food service workers who are no longer working in its recently closed office cafeterias, while also providing a larger community benefit. Within days, employees of Compass Group, UnitedHealth Group's employee food service vendor, began assembling meals at UnitedHealth Group’s Optum headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minn.

“During this unprecedented public health emergency, getting a healthy meal will increasingly become a core need for many Minnesotans,” said Brett Edelson, CEO, UnitedHealthcare of Minnesota. “We have a group of people ready to help. We’re proud to have been able to quickly reallocate space and resources to contribute to this effort.”

Hunger-relief organization Second Harvest Heartland, through its newly created Minnesota Central Kitchen initiative, says three out of every four people they serve are working families, and that they are seeing a dramatic spike in need.

“In some cases, our partners are telling us requests have more than doubled in just the last week,” said Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland. “We are grateful for our community partners, including UnitedHealth Group and Compass Group, for their much-needed help.”

Each day, beginning Monday of this week, completed meals will be picked up and distributed to 37 Loaves & Fishes meal distribution sites located throughout the greater Twin Cities. UnitedHealth Group, which is covering the approximately $1 million cost of the food and wages for participating Compass Group employees, expects the effort to continue for at least eight weeks.

Meals are being prepared by more than 20 Compass Group employees who normally cook for and serve the UnitedHealth Group employees who now work primarily from home because of government-mandated stay-at-home orders.

Menu selection will be directed by Compass Group’s Chef Robert Schoonover and will include meals such as rotisserie style chicken, herb roasted beef, Cajun seared tilapia and maple glazed pit ham. Chef Schoonover and Christianna Gozzi, Compass Group’s wellness director and registered dietitian for UnitedHealth Group, are responsible for bringing healthier food options to UnitedHealth Group employees.

“We’re honored to be able to do our part in helping those in need during this difficult time,” said Schoonover. “Eating a well-balanced meal is an important component to staying healthy and we are humbled by the opportunity. The Compass team is thankful to UnitedHealth Group for keeping our workers employed in a purpose-driven way during this period.”

This effort is part of UnitedHealth Group’s recently announced $50 million commitment to support communities affected by COVID-19. UnitedHealth Group is also looking at other markets to similarly repurpose office cafés and workers in order to serve communities in need.