When children don’t look forward to the summer break…
Stephanie Hawkins had a big dream.
“I just wanted to feed hungry kids,” Hawkins said. And she would not rest until that dream became reality. Failure was not an option.
She knew it was a problem when she drove a school bus for the Davis County Community School District in southern Iowa. She knew it when she became a support services secretary. And when she became the district’s food service manager, she acted.
“I ran the point of sale at the elementary school during breakfasts and lunches, so I saw all these kids come through and I knew the ones that didn’t eat,” Hawkins said. “I thought, ‘if they aren’t eating now, how are they going to eat during the summer?’”
The Davis County Community School District faces challenges similar to many Iowa school districts – a high poverty rate and wide-ranging transportation needs in a rural setting. Both are daunting where childhood nutrition in summer is concerned. Though residing in the nation’s bread basket, one in five of Iowa’s children face hunger and 90 percent of those receiving free and-reduced meals during the school year lose access to school sponsored meals during the summer. Solving the problem might seem more than one district could handle.
Stephanie Hawkins was not deterred. She sought the support of Superintendent Dan Maeder, and of Dan Roberts, head of district Transportation, Food Service and Maintenance. Administrative leadership coupled with a dedicated, skilled, enthusiastic staff and impressive network of volunteers all worked together to solve the summer meal problem.
For three years and counting, the Davis County Community School District has run a highly successful summer food program. Last summer the district served 8,572 lunches at seven different locations to children who otherwise would not receive the nutrition they need. The district received a recognition award from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and was honored for its success.
Maeder describes the district as “a community that cares like no other and is exceptional at thinking about innovative ways to get things done.” The district’s motto: One school, one community, one goal, the best that we can be.
Executing a successful summer food program did not happen by accident or miraculous good luck. There’s a bread crumb trail that clearly illustrates how the district managed to provide summer meals to hungry children.
Hawkins learned about summer food programs by attending the School Nutrition Association summer conference with her predecessor, and via trainings, directors’ meetings and updates. The district then proceeded with the application process and ultimately qualified through the Iowa Department of Education and the USDA.
“It was important to the Davis County School District to have emphasis on quality menus,” said Stephanie Dross, a nutrition consultant with the Iowa Department of Education. “They began by delivering food in SUVs to the sites. They were willing to transition and take baby steps and stick with it.”
Hawkins continued to advocate for improvements in the summer meal delivery system. So with characteristic optimism, she requested a bona fide food truck.
“There were logistical and technical problems with keeping food warm in the vehicles,” Hawkins said. “I knew hot meals would draw the kids out to receive food. Dan Roberts then suggested converting an older school bus to meet our needs.”
Once again, persistence, ingenuity and teamwork paid off. From the hands of district construction engineers, cooks, carpenters, bus drivers, office managers, administrators, teachers, welders, mechanics, and community volunteers emerged a totally transformed bus converted to a full-service kitchen on wheels, including a lunch counter where students could choose to dine inside.
“We are constantly thinking of ways to make it better,” Maeder said. “And that goes from the leaders all the way to our bus drivers and our food service workers. Everyone. It takes initiative and hard work, but I would encourage participation – especially if school districts have students who are worried about their next meal.”
The Davis County summer food program has also joined with the First Book Program to provide children with free books when they visit food sites to receive a meal.
“You can do the summer food program, not lose money and do all these great things, if you follow the easy steps that are in place,” Hawkins said. “How many of your kids in your district are on free and-reduced priced meals? How many of them are going to be food insecure during the summer? If you do not have a summer food program, what is it that is holding you back? How do you say ‘no’ to these children? How do you say, ‘sorry, we can’t feed you.’ There is no reason not to do it.”
With the Davis County Community School District summer food program well under way, Hawkins has since moved on to new challenges. She currently works as food service director for the Fairfield Community School District, where she plans to help make improvements in its summer food program as well.
“I have had people ask me, ‘Is the summer food program an important program?’ I say it’s like throwing out a net for kids who otherwise would not eat and who can receive better nutrition,” Hawkins said.
She recalls an experience from the first year of summer food service in Davis County.
“It was a rainy day. Two little boys arrived at the meal site dripping wet. One boy said to the other, ‘Do you think they will feed us?’ The cook greeted them and asked how they were doing, and if they wanted to eat. The cook asked them if it had been a long time since breakfast. One boy said he did not have any breakfast. The other boy said he had breakfast, which was a chocolate bunny from his Easter basket. Now bear in mind, this is in summer. The boys took everything we offered and ate everything on their lunch tray. That is why we do what we do.”