Lindsey Thompson has six children living at home. Keeping food on the table isn’t easy, and in the past, the Cedar Rapids mom struggled through the long summer months when school lunch wasn’t being served.
She is far from alone. About 13,000 children in Linn County are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty. For their families, losing three months of daily meals can be a strain.
But bridging that meal gap is an increasing focus of both the federal and state government, said Stephanie Dross, Summer Food Service Program consultant at the Bureau of Nutrition and Health in the Iowa Department of Education.
The department receives funding for the program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There is a lot of work to do to meet the need, she said.
“In Iowa, we reach less than 10 percent of kids who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, which is consistent with the nationwide reach of the program,” she said. “It’s very underutilized.”
But the number of children being helped is growing. Across the state, 611,574 lunches were served in 2013 — about 56,000 more than the summer before and a huge increase from 2002, when just more than 20,000 were lunches were served.
The program offers a free meal, Monday through Friday, to any child under age 18 who shows up at a meal site. Sites can be almost anywhere — schools, parks, libraries and community centers are all used.
Meals are provided by sponsor organizations, which are compensated by the USDA for each lunch served. Some sites also serve breakfast, or a snack in addition to lunch.
Linn County is one of the program’s centers of the growth in Iowa. The United Way of East Central Iowa is spearheading expansion efforts in Cedar Rapids.
Last year, the United Way had 13 open meal sites that served a combined 800 meals a day. This year, they have 24 sites.
Organizers said they expect to serve 1,000 children a day at the beginning of the summer and 1,600 meals a day by the end of the summer as awareness grows.
Loy said the rapid growth is still dwarfed by need. Even feeding twice as many children as last year means the program isn’t reaching more than 11,000 children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Bringing meals to kids
Loy said the goal is to expand the program by bringing meal sites to children, not the other way around. Transportation is a major barrier for kids getting to sites outside their neighborhood.
Organizers also are concerned about safety — they don’t want kids to have to cross busy roads, for example, to reach the free meal.
Some sites, such as the Oakhill Jackson Resource Center in Cedar Rapids, include games and activities along with lunch.
“I think if it’s branded as just free lunch, there’s a stigma there,” site coordinator Dawn Stephens said. “That’s why I like to do activities because that’s universal.”
The program also is designed to be easy in which to participate. Children attending open meal sites do not need to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch to receive a meal, and they do not have to register for the program.
“The listing of ‘free’ can be a stigma. We’re trying to play that down,” Loy said. “We don’t ask any questions. If a kid shows up, we’re going to feed them.”
The United Way works with three sponsor organizations — Horizons, Four Oaks and the Boys and Girls Club — each of whom produces and delivers meals to neighborhood sites.
To open a site, United Way needs volunteers to staff the location, sometimes individuals and sometimes members of companies and organizations which “adopt” a site. The Gazette Co. is one of those companies supplying volunteers.
Another requirement for an open-meal site relates to demographics. The site must meet one of two criteria — it must be in an attendance zone for a school in which 50 percent of more of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, or it must be in a neighborhood where census data shows at least 50 percent of children qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Another option is a “closed” site. Closed sites can be opened in any neighborhood, but children must register ahead of time and must qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Often those sites are run in conjunction with summer camp-type programming.
That’s how several of the summer meal sites operate in Iowa City. There are three open sites in Johnson County, one run in conjunction with the city of Coralville Dept. of Parks and Recreation and two through the Iowa City Community School District.
There also are several closed sites. Some are run in partnership with the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County as day camps. Both the closed and open Iowa City sites offer programming.
“Kids have access to literacy and math and games and fun,” said Susan Freeman, Pheasant Ridge site coordinator. “Offering activities increases participation and the overall experience for a child.”
For parent Lindsey Thompson, there’s peace of mind just knowing her children have access to meals even while she’s working at Children and Families of Iowa.
“I grew up not always having enough to eat, and my children haven’t always had enough to eat,” she said. “So this is huge.”
Private organizations filling in gaps
The USDA isn’t the only organization providing summer meals.
The North Liberty Unity Coalition started a free summer lunch program this year in North Liberty. It decided to go without government funding so it could work in neighborhoods that didn’t have 50 percent of children who qualify for free and reduced lunch.
“I think there are children in the community who probably will not have a good lunch if this isn’t provided, and I just think that’s very important for kids to have that,” North Liberty Unity Coalition member Judy McRoberts told The Gazette for a May 26 article about the program.
On the northern end of the Corridor, the Feeding Lunches to Youth program is based at First United Methodist Church in Marion. Volunteers from about 10 Marion churches prepare and serve lunches at eight sites.
They served about 12,000 meals last summer.
Keith Nester, pastor of youth and mission at First United Methodist, said the church decided against using the USDA program. Instead, the program relies on a combination of private donations and grants.
Nester said their model differs from the government program in that kids aren’t required to eat the meal on site.
“We just roll up with totes of sandwiches. A lot of our sites don’t really have a place where kids can eat on site,” Nester said.
He said he sees a real need for what they’re doing.
“You see the same kids keep coming back,” he said. “We also see families that drive to sites to pick up lunch for their kids.”
Open USDA summer meal sites in Linn and Johnson Counties
Source: Iowa Department of Education
Sponsor organization: Boys & Girls Club of Cedar Rapids, (319) 377-8993
Hoover Elementary, 4141 Johnson Ave. NW, Cedar Rapids
Olivet, Olivet Unit 230, 10th Street NW, Cedar Rapids
Polk Elementary, 1500 B Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids
South Unit, 361 17th Street SE, Cedar Rapids
Taylor Elementary, 720 7th Ave SW, Cedar Rapids
Sponsor organization: Four Oaks, (319) 784-2159
Cedar Valley, 3000 J Street SW, Cedar Rapids
Hawthorne Hills, 2283 C Street SW, Cedar Rapids
Jane Boyd, 943 14th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
Sponsor organization: Horizons, (319) 398-3574
5 Seasons Mobile Homes, 3421 Blairs Ferry Road NE, Cedar Rapids
Bever Park, 2700 Bever Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
Cedar Terrace Trailer Park, 1834 Gretchen Drive SW, Cedar Rapids
Daniels Park, 940 Oakland Road NE, Cedar Rapids
Ellis Park, 916 Ellis Blvd. NW, Cedar Rapids
Jacolyn Park, Jacolyn Drive and Gordon Ave. NW, Cedar Rapids
Jones Park, Wilson Ave. and Fruitland Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids
Kenwood Elementary, 3700 E Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids
Ladd Library, 3750 12th Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids
Lincoln School, 912 18th Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids
Oak Hill Jackson Resource Center, 1230 Fifth Street SE, Cedar Rapids
Paul Engle Center, 1600 Fourth Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
Westdale Court Apartments, 2155 Westdale Drive SW, Cedar Rapids
Nixon Elementary, 200 Nixon Drive, Hiawatha
Marion Public Library, 1095 Sixth Ave., Marion
Colonial Homes Mobile Home Park, Highway 1, Mount Vernon
Springville Senior Dining Site, 265 Broadway Street, Springville
Sponsor organization: Salvation Army, (319) 364-9131
Salvation Army Cedar Rapids, 1000 C Ave. NW, Cedar Rapids
Sponsor organization: St Paul’s United Methodist Church, (319) 632-4428
St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 1340 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
Sponsor organization: City of Coralville Parks and Recreation, (319) 248-1750
S.T. Morrison Park, 1512 Seventh St., Coralville
Sponsor organization: Iowa City Community School District, (319) 358-0438
Pheasant Ridge, 2651 Roberts Road, Iowa City
Wetherby Park, 2400 Taylor Drive, Iowa City