Children cannot wait for summer to arrive. The end of the school year is filled with excitement in anticipation of all that summer will bring. Spending endless hours outside with friends, going swimming, playing in the park, and even settling in and reading favorite books.
This summer across Iowa many children will spend extended periods of time at home each day, under the watch of an older sibling or care provider, as their parents both leave for work. Recent census data suggests that 72% of Iowa families with children 6 years or younger have both parents in the labor force. This ranks Iowa third-highest in the nation, behind only South Dakota and North Dakota.
Ensuring Iowa children have access to quality meals and snacks during summer is a top priority for state leaders.
Reaching more children
Last year the Iowa Department of Education worked with 183 sponsoring organizations, many of which were local school districts, to organize 538 summer meal sites across the state to provide nutritious breakfast, lunch, snack and supper meals to children in low-income areas. Around half of these sites were in rural communities.
LUNCHTIME: Children at the summer meal site at Central Elementary School in Nevada found unique ways to have fun while enjoying their lunch.
“Each day during the school year approximately 200,000 children in Iowa receive free or reduced school meals,” says Stephanie Dross, with the Iowa Department of Education’s Bureau of Nutrition and Health Services. “With the 2017 summer meal program, we were able to reach around 12% of those students each day either through a breakfast, lunch, snack or supper meal. We want to expand our reach.”
Many of the summer meal sites are in local schools because they are set up to prepare and serve meals. Other locations within a community can also be used as meal sites including parks, community centers, churches and apartment buildings.
Children under 18 can participate
"Although this food service program is placed in areas of high need, all children need access to healthy meals and snacks,” Dross says. “All children under the age of 18 are encouraged to participate at summer meal sites.”
Five years ago, USDA Rural Development began a partnership program to bring nutritious meals during the summer to children living in and around the 400 apartment complexes across rural Iowa that are part of Rural Development’s Multi-Family Housing Program.
“We are looking at innovative ways to strengthen partnerships and support infrastructure in rural communities and have made it a priority to increase the number of summer meal sites in rural Iowa this year,” says Annette Sweeney, state director for USDA Rural Development in Iowa. “Apartment buildings, especially in rural communities, can make a perfect venue for bringing nutritious meals to where the children are, rather than depending on transportation to other facilities.”
More summer meal sites
Communities have gotten creative in how they deliver the summer meal program.
In Bloomfield, a retired school bus was retrofitted to include lunch tables and benches to become a mobile meal site that can deliver meals in multiple communities and locations.
The United Way of Mahaska County serves meals in a variety of locations around Oskaloosa. Meal site locations include the farmers market, Mahaska Health Partnership, the Oskaloosa Art Center and Studios, the public library, local schools and an apartment building.
“A summer meal program is critically important for many rural children, who may be at risk of going hungry when they do not have access to free and reduced-price school meals,” Sweeney notes. “By engaging managers of apartment complexes across rural Iowa, we are hopeful even more children will have access to these important meals this summer.”
Reaching rural kids with no access
Community leaders are encouraged to reach out to the Iowa Department of Education or USDA Rural Development if they would like to participate in the summer meal program.
“We are committed to expanding our impact through partnerships,” Sweeney says. “Our collaboration with partners in the summer meal program is a great opportunity to build more partnerships and leverage collective resources to feed more rural children. Together, we are working to implement Secretary [Sonny] Perdue’s vision to “Do right and feed everyone.”
FEEDING KIDS: The summer food service program organized by the Iowa Department of Education is expanding this year to reach more children in rural communities with a breakfast, lunch, snack or supper meal.
For more information about the summer meal program in Iowa, visit educateiowa.gov.
“We would love to hear from any community that would like to establish a summer meal site for their children, or expand a site to a new location within their community,” Dross says. “We would be very happy to try to connect communities to a sponsoring organization that, many times, will take the lead on preparing the meals and help with coordinating the program.”
Leach is public information coordinator with USDA Rural Development in Iowa.