By Dave Loy and Sonia Kersevich
Summer seems like a ways out but a group of community members — including the team here at United Way of East Central Iowa — already is planning ways to feed 13,000-plus children who are at risk of not eating enough this summer.
During the school year, about 13,000 children are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. An additional 1,700 children under age 5 fall below the poverty level in Linn County. Many low-income families rely on school breakfast and lunch to feed their children during the school year so they can focus on keeping the heat on and a roof over their heads. During the summer months — when school is on break — there is a bigger strain on families, leaving many families uncertain about where the next meal will come from.
In 2012, in Linn County, our partners Horizons, Boys and Girls Clubs of Cedar Rapids, The Salvation Army, Neighborhood Meal and Enrichment Program, Four Oaks and Tanager Place served 53,991 summer meals, an increase of 146 percent from the previous year. And while that increase is encouraging, we still are feeding only 6 percent of eligible children in Linn County, according to the Iowa Department of Education.
Iowa ranks 40th in the country in feeding our children during the summer. Families already are struggling to make up the monthly $35 shortfall in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds that were cut in late 2013. Congress is debating further cuts to this needed food program.
There is plenty of room for growth right here in our community. We can do more to accelerate this growth but there is a need for greater community support, and we hope our Feb. 18 Summer Meals Summit featuring Undersecretary Kevin Concannon from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will help move this project forward.
He leads the promotion of healthful diets through the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and we hope the event will help us build on our already existing efforts: working with local agencies and the Iowa Department of Education to feed low-income children nutritious meals during the summer through the federally funded Summer Food Service Program.
Mr. Concannon will help us brainstorm ideas to improve the number of children who receive free, nutritious meals this summer. To make this happen, we invite parents, food service organizations, churches, schools, family support workers and all other interested people to the summit.
The Summer Food Service Program was established to ensure that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session. Free meals that meet federal nutrition guidelines are provided to all children 18 and under at approved SFSP sites in areas with significant concentrations of low-income children.
As we realize that children in Linn County are going hungry in the summer, the importance of this program cannot be understated. In the summer of 2013, Mildred Harrington was a member of one of the few families that took advantage of the Summer Meals Program locally. She stated it this way: “We only get so many food stamps, and so this will help out a lot”
You are invited to join us for the free Summer Meals Program Summit on Feb. 18. Sign up at UnitedWayofEastCentralIowa.org/summer-meals-summit. With your help, we can increase the number of Linn County children receiving nutritious food this summer.Dave Loy is United Way of East Central Iowa’s community building manager in the financial stability area. Sonia Kersevich is an intern at United Way. Comments/information: firstname.lastname@example.org or (319) 398-5372, Ext 25, or email@example.com or (319) 398-5372, Ext 14.