MARION — Thirty-six kids were waiting for Kirk and Bret McNeil as they arrived Tuesday afternoon at Squaw Creek Village Mobile Home Park in Marion.
A line formed as the father-son duo parked their pickup and unpacked boxes filled with brown paper bags, each containing a sandwich, a snack and a beverage.
The line grew as they distributed the bags, with kids and a handful of parents arriving from all directions. It only took about 15 minutes before all 80 of the lunches were gone, leaving Kirk McNeil to deliver the bad news to one or two latecomers.
“I can give you a sandwich now, and if you wait 10 minutes, we’ll have some more bags brought over,” he said.
True to his word, more bags soon arrived — extras from other locations — and not a single child was left without a full meal.
The McNeils are just one set of volunteers distributing lunches around Marion as part of the Feeding Lunch to Youth project. It’s one of the larger area efforts to fill a role provided by school districts while class is in session: serving free lunches to children of low-income families.
More than 10,000 students from kindergarten through high school across the Marion, Linn-Mar, Cedar Rapids and College school districts meet the income qualifications for free and reduced-price lunches under the National School Lunch Program, according to the Iowa Department of Education. Many families depend on the lunch program, making summer a precarious time. The current federal income qualifications require a family of five to make $48,415 or less a year to qualify for discounted lunches.
Feeding Lunch to Youth kicked off on Monday with about 160 lunches, but it usually takes a week or so before their distribution reaches an average of 350 lunches per day, said Matt Schmuecker, an intern with the program and its lead organizer. The most they’ve made for a single day was 600.
The program, sponsored by and based out of First United Methodist Church in Marion, has steadily increased its coverage of the city during the last three years and has six distribution sites. Volunteers show up as early as 10:30 a.m. to make the lunches, which are then sent out to locations near local apartments and mobile home parks such as Marion Village, Chapel Ridge, Eagle Ridge, Azure Apartments, Starry Park and Squaw Creek.
Kirk McNeil chose to volunteer at Squaw Creek, the largest site the program serves, because his wife teaches at nearby Linn Grove Elementary School, and they know many of the children in the community. He has distributed as many as 140 lunches a day, which is close to Linn Grove’s 2011-2012 free and reduced lunch population of 166.
“The good news is you see a lot of the same kids coming out, so you know they’re getting fed,” he said. “The bad news is you see a lot of the same kids coming out.”
Before this year, Cedar Rapids had no citywide distribution of summer lunches such as the Feeding Lunch to Youth program. Smaller groups like Matthew 25 Ministry picked up some of the slack on a local, neighborhood scale, serving about 50 lunches each day to kids in the Time Check neighborhood.
That’s changing as local Meals on Wheels provider Horizons is starting its own summer lunch program for youth, kicking off its first day Monday. Horizons is starting out distributing lunches at Jones Park, Daniels Park, the Oakhill Jackson Resource Center and the Springville Community Center — all chosen because local schools have greater than 50 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, said Lisa Lafler, head of marketing and public relations for Horizons.
Momentum is building slowly. In the three days the program has been active, it has gone from 23 to 76 lunches across all three sites, and Lafler said there is plenty of capacity to expand.
In order to qualify for discounted or free school lunches, families normally fill out forms and paperwork to provide proof of their income level. The summer lunch programs differ in that none of them require any proof of income or need from the families they serve.
“It is open to anyone who stops by. There’s nothing they need to prove,” said Lafler.
“We typically don’t ask any questions,” said Kirk McNeil. “If someone needs a meal, we’ll give it to them.”
Matthew 25 Ministry: 225 K Ave. NW Suite G, Cedar Rapids, noon, Monday through Friday
Horizons: 11 to 11:45 a.m., Jones Park, Wilson Avenue and Fruitland Boulevard SW; 12:15 to 1 p.m., Daniels Park, 940 Oakland Rd. NE; noon to 12:45 p.m., Oak Hill Jackson Resource Center, 1230 Fifth St. SE; noon to 12:45 p.m., Springville Community Center; Monday through Friday
Feeding Lunch to Youth: Marion Village, 700 35th St.; Chapel Ridge, 1 Chapelridge Circle; Eagle Ridge, 1285 Red Fox Way; Azure Apartments, 600 Bentley Dr.; Starry Park, 1480 Grane Ave; and Squaw Creek, 6201 Hennessey Parkway; noon, Monday through Friday.