While it’s summer break for most Iowa students, more than three dozen Iowa school districts are still providing breakfast and lunch to local students.
State officials say the meals help low income children stay healthy over the summer and they want more Iowa schools to use the federal money that’s available for the program.
Rod Bakken, the lead nutrition consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, says providing meals over the summer helps the students’ performance for the entire year.
"If they perceive that the community really cares about them, these kids are much more loyal and attached. They’re physically better able to deal with learning in the fall when school starts," Bakken says. "It’s a win, win circumstance cause they’re healthier and happier."
Sixty-two Iowa school districts are eligible for the federal money because of the percentage of low income children enrolled in their schools, but 22 of the districts choose not to use that money. Bakken says they’re turning the money down for a variety of reasons.
"I think one of the common ones might be small school districts that have a high percentage of their student population that have to be bused in and they simply can’t afford to bus them," he says. "And then we also have adults in communities who perhaps feel that maybe this is beyond the scope of their responsibility."
Columbus Junction is one of the school districts which could get federal money for the program, but superintendent Rich Bridenstine says he found the cost of providing meals to low-income students would not be completely covered by the federal funds forwarded to his school.
"For us to really deliver the food to where a lot of the kids are, we would need multiple sites, multiple vans, multiple personnel…it’s not like just a matter of having them all walk to one area and be able to feed the students," he says.
If Columbus Junction began offering summer meals, Bridenstine says other school services would have to be cut. "I’ve received no calls from anyone in district saying they know of groups of children that aren’t being fed and that are going hungry," he says. "I don’t want to be naïve. I’m sure that there are some kids that are not getting lunch, but it’s not an issue in which the school board and the community is saying there’s a need and the school better step up and provide those services."
One recent weekday morning, more than 100 children were waiting at Hiatt Middle School in Des Moines for a sandwich, fruit, veggies and milk.
"During the summertime we find that students, when it’s hot outside, are more likely to eat something that’s cold (and) refrigerated rather than something that’s hot out of the oven," says Teresa Nece, director of food and nutrition for Des Moines Public Schools.
Back in 1984 — Nece’s first year with the district, summer lunches were offered at one school in Des Moines. Now, the Des Moines District alone provides summer meals at 42 sites.
"As we look at hunger in Iowa and as we look at hunger whether it’s in Des Moines or any other community, it exists. This is probably one of the most beneficial programs that I’ve ever been involved with because you see the need and you can meet that need by offering the meals," Nece says.