Summer meals and learning programs are helping many kids in the county

Marlys Barker Tri-County
Times Editor

Consider this fact, published by the organization called Hunger Free America: 88.4 percent of eligible kids in Iowa (based on their ability to receive free or reduced cost meals in school),fail to get summer meals.

In Story County, several local school districts, in partnership with Youth and Shelter Services (YSS), United Way of Story County and the Volunteer Center of Story County are doing everything they can to be sure Story County’s hungry kids get fed.

Not only are these programs feeding kids’ hunger for food, the programs that exist in Story County are also feeding their brains.

At Nevada, the summer program is called Food For Thought. It has been going on during the summer months and will end Aug. 3. A similar program in Ames runs through Aug. 11, and another program in Ames, called Lil’ Cyclones, just ended on July 20.

Last year, the Tri-County Times had a story about a program for students in the Ballard School District. That program has also continued this year; and for the first time this summer, a pilot summer enrichment program was operated at the Collins-Maxwell elementary school in Collins during four weeks in June.

President and CEO of United Way of Story County Jean Kresse reminds us of how all these summer feeding and enrichment programs started, as a spin-off of United Way of Story County’s Hunger Collaboration, back in 2012.

“In 2012, the Hunger Collaboration was discussing the expansion of the BackPack Program™, which led to the discussion of, ‘What do school-age children do in the summer?,’ especially those on the Free and Reduced School Lunch Program,” Kresse said. The BackPack Program, and similar programs in some schools, is based on sending home a backpack containing food to help some children receive adequate nutrition over the weekend. It is offered during the school year.

Back in 2012, Kresse said the only summer food program in the county was at the Boys & Girls Club of Story County, located in Ames. “They fed about 100 children daily,” she recalled.

Kresse said the members of the Hunger Collaboration were concerned about those children not being fed, and several members of the Collaboration reached out to the Iowa Department of Education and USDA about a summer food service program. “We learned as much as we could and then worked with Sara Clausen (who was director of the Nevada Chamber of Commerce at the time),” Kresse said. Clausen hosted a community conversation in Nevada, which brought together a number of people from the school and other service organizations to share what it would take to get a program off the ground that could be sure kids in Nevada, who were in need, were getting fed during the summer months.

In the summer of 2013, the first summer food/enrichment program was held in Nevada. It was operated out of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church’s social hall. “We fed 174 children that first summer,” Kresse said. And various partners were involved, like YSS, which helped oversee the program; Heartland Senior Services, which made the meals; HIRTA, which provided transportation; church groups; businesses and volunteers. Kresse remembers that Ralph Manning and the Kiwanis group cleaned the social hall after kids left, and that the Nevada Community Resource Center staff and the kids they cared for in the summer attended. She also remembers that tons of books were donated to be given to kids, and there were volunteers who put on educational activities with each meal.

All in all, getting something off the ground in Nevada that first year was a success.

Kresse said when new Nevada school superintendent Dr. Steve Gray came in, he was interested in moving the program to the elementary school in Nevada. So they did that the next summer, and they also opened the program to any child, age 3 to grade eight, and it was well-received. Over 300 children were enrolled. The district took over making the meals and supplementing transportation, and many of the same partner agencies and volunteers were involved in providing help and activities. So many kids made things a little “crazy,” Kresse admitted, especially when this type of program has so much reliance on volunteers to help.

For this year, it was decided to narrow the group of kids to the ages of pre-K through eighth grade, and the program in Nevada has been serving between 108 and 120 kids each day of the program. Food For Thought also has a site supervisor, Kalli Kannel, and a director through YSS, Jennifer Schmit, who oversee the learning part of the program; and Dave Schmidt, Nevada food service director and his staff, who oversees the food.

Schmidt said his staff is also making the food for the programs in Ames at the Ames Library and Boys & Girls Club. Those organizations send people to pick up the food, which is taken to kids at those Ames sites.

“We do almost 300 more meals (in addition to the meals in Nevada) for those programs,” Schmidt said. He said in Nevada, they’ve been serving 100 for breakfast and up to 150 for lunch, because they also serve the kids who are cared for at the Nevada Community Resource Center.

“The state reimburses the meals program,” Schmidt said, and the Nevada Food Service Program has contracts with YSS and the Boys and Girls Club for the meals they make for the programs in Ames.

The addition of cooking for the Ames’ programs, Schmidt said, has been a great thing for the food service workers in Nevada, many of whom need to work during the summer to keep their bills paid. Four more food service workers have jobs this summer because of the added meals. A total of seven food service workers are currently employed during the summer.

Also good is that the Nevada Food Service still receives fresh produce from the Nevada FFA’s “Farm to School” program to use in the summer meals, which is a great way to add nutritious fruit and vegetables to the variety of food being served.

In fact, Schmidt said, despite the new president’s administration’s plans to cut back on the “healthy food” initiatives that former First Lady Michelle Obama was pushing in schools, he has made those earlier restrictions work in a great way at Nevada, and plans to continue to serve healthy meals and utilize the Farm to School program’s produce. Since the food service is seeing more kids eating, Schmidt sees no reason to reduce the “health factor” in the meals Nevada is having success creating.

On the “thought” side of the program, Kannel is pleased with the enrollment of 120 students, who come not only from Nevada but from a few other neighboring communities. “We even have one child with a Sheldahl address,” she said.

Kannel said many kids arrive at 8:15 for breakfast; some who are being transported by bus get there at 8:45 to eat. Once fed, the kids take off to learn at four different stations that they rotate through each day.

First, is the STEM station, led by Dave Swegle of Paragon in Nevada. Kannel said he does great things with the kids, including “Experiment Thursdays” and letting the kids make ice cream in a bag recently.

Second, is the literacy area, led by Marci Gallagher with Reading Corps. Kannel said Gallagher has had a lot of fun, interactive things, like having the kids make their own board games, and kids earn tokens for prizes for the amount of reading they accomplish.

Third, there’s a fitness area led by a staff member from Boys and Girls Club. Those activities are held in the gym.

Fourth, is the theme center, where kids travel to a new continent every week. Last week, they were in Africa. Presenters are often brought in to share, and last week, Kannel said, they had a “camp day.”

The program ends at 12:15, after lunch has been finished.

Kannel said it’s evident that the kids who attend love being there. “One of the kids told me they were looking forward to this all year,” she said. “They love ‘summer school.’”

Kresse said the only negative thing about the programs is that this year, numbers were down in terms of volunteers. “That made a huge impact on the program.” Kids have been safe, she said, “but we really missed the extra adults helping and developing those positive relationships with our kids.”

Hopefully for next year, the programs can continue to do the great things they’re doing; and over the winter, if people can consider their ability to volunteer a little time to help next summer, reach out to Kresse at United Way and let her know she can count on you at one of the summer program locations.

One last note, Kresse said there is a boy volunteering this year who attended the program as an older youth when he was in school. Now he’s paying it forward. “Super cool in my eyes,” Kresse said.