A record number of new students are enrolled in Iowa’s “summer food service” program this year. The federally-funded program allows schools and other non-profit organizations to serve meals during the summer to low income school children who qualify for free or reduced price lunches during the school year.

While there was greater demand for the free meals this year, 14 more Iowa school districts and five more Iowa non-profit agencies began offering the service this summer and that helped expand enrollment, too.

“Behaviors frequently, I think, are improved because kids aren’t thinking about their stomach or being irritated because of hunger,” says Rod Bakken, an Iowa Department of Education consultant. “…I think that actually kids are generally mentally and physically more healthy and more ready to come back to school in the fall.”

The number of Iowa kids getting these free, summertime meals has increased 232 percent since 2002. Bakken says another side benefit of the program is the students get to interact with school personnel during the summer.

“These kids just see one more smile every day…They have a sense from that that they’re cared for,” he says. “…I don’t think there’s anything negative that comes from that.”

Last summer, the federal government spent over a million dollars to pay for these meals for school kids. Eighty-six different schools and non-profit groups are participating in the program this year, with food being served at 210 different sites around the state. A summer feeding site must be located in a school district or an area where 50 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch.