Summer food programs: Filling a need
“If you build it, they will come,” a quote many may recognize from the movie Field of Dreams. Set in rural Iowa, the film explores a farmer’s decision to plow down his cornfield and build a baseball diamond in its place. While the film is fictional, the ‘if you build it’ philosophy is alive and well in Iowa this summer, in an urban park. Exactly what has been built may come as a surprise. With West Des Moines Community School District as the architect, Legion Park hosts a very well-built, successful summer food program for families seeking an appetizing, nutritious meal.
On opening day of the summer food program, children and families are playing in Legion Park. Notably delighted it’s finally summer, they are too engrossed in the many amenities there to notice when a large, white, industrial delivery truck arrives on site. Soon they will learn that inside the truck is a mobile kitchen and three West Des Moines Community School District nutrition employees on a serious mission: to feed healthful, delicious lunches to an average of 100-125 people, free of charge, Monday through Friday, all summer long.
Victoria Juarez, an 11-year veteran to the summer program, bounds out of the truck first, followed by Casey Baker, now in her fourth year of service. They help direct the newbie, Ingrid Sacoto, who skillfully backs the truck into position beside the park shelter where lunch will be served. The team is friendly, energetic, and focused. They must quickly and efficiently unload the truck and set up the milk cooler, steam table, salad bar, hot cart, washing station, condiments and utensils.
Rosie Solis, who has worked for West Des Moines Human Services for 10 years and at the summer food site for six, arrives to assist with record keeping and meal counts.
“The program is for anyone who doesn’t have food or has limited resources,” Solis said. “Any child under the age of 18 can participate. They do not have to be from West Des Moines. People over age 18 can purchase a meal for $3.50, or visit West Des Moines Human Services to see if they meet guidelines to qualify for a meal.”
There is a real need for food for many children who do not have access to regular school meals during the summer. Some families have older siblings taking care of younger ones while parents are at work. With the summer food program, parents know their child is getting a healthy, nutritious meal, no matter what the circumstances at home.
“We really encourage people to think about using this program,” said Cheryl McLellan, a nutrition services supervisor for the West Des Moines Community School District. “In conversations with parents that have used it we hear, ‘Wow, by doing this it made it easier to pay my rent,’ or they use it as part of their budget. We also use it to reach out to our military families who may be struggling.”
The Summer Food Service Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through reimbursements to local sponsors. The West Des Moines site is but one of over 500 throughout the state, all designed to provide a meal or two to students who otherwise might go without during the summer months.
At the Legion Park site, the West Des Moines District has partnered with West Des Moines Human Services, Parks and Recreation, and the public library to help provide additional programs and activities for participants. Human services helps with some onsite labor and helps coordinate qualifying people for meals with other social service and financial guidelines. The public library provides a book share, where children can choose a book to take home and keep. In addition to park maintenance and oversight, West Des Moines Parks and Recreation made sure to provide electrical service to the shelter where meals are served.
Willow Dye, director of nutrition services for the West Des Moines Community School District, also utilizes interns from Iowa State University to help get activities out in the park each summer. Activities have included Fuel Up to Play 60 football hoops, nutrition bingo, gunny sack races, and ring toss. Children can select an item from prize bins after earning three tickets by participating in the activity booths.
“It’s also about the social piece, especially set in the park,” Dye said. “They can play at the splash pad and then bring their kids right over and have a meal. It’s not just about not being able to afford a meal at home. We have a full fruit and salad bar set out so it is also a nutritious meal that families can enjoy. It’s convenient because it’s right there. You can take your child to the park, they can play and then they can come over and eat lunch.
“It also takes out the stigma of getting free food, if you are coming to the park for other reasons. You’re coming because there are library books available for your child. You’re coming because they can play at the park with their friends and it’s a free day to help entertain your child and get them a nutritious meal. It helps lessen any stigma about free food.”
West Des Moines has 11 food sites throughout the district. Dye and her staff visit the various sites and work with the kids who are coming into kindergarten.
“It’s fun to talk to the parents,” McLellan said. “Some of them say, ‘I come over because my child is going to go to this building and now I can get them comfortable coming here.’ They can learn how to go through a line, how to carry a lunch tray, and learn how when they accidentally dump the tray on the ground, ‘don’t cry, it’s okay,’ they can get another one. You can tell it’s a program we are passionate about.”
Just look at opening day at Legion Park. Dye and Stephanie Dross, a summer food service program consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, are on hand for a site visit. Children and families migrate from the splash sprayground, climbing ropes and slides over to the inviting, shady shelter, where the nutrition team has lunch service under way. Some people are participants from previous summers, some are new to the experience. All are patiently waiting in line, anxiously anticipating the tasty meal.
Rosie manages the meal count, while Casey and Ingrid serve yogurt, string cheese and milk. Juarez greets each person with friendly purpose, care and compassion. She asks each diner if they would like baby carrots, cucumbers, strawberries or an apple. She reminds the patrons about the selection of sandwiches, giving extra attention to the younger children and gently guiding them through the process, helping everyone enjoy a nutritious meal on a beautiful, sunny, summer day.
“The program is open to everyone, not just people living in poverty,” Dross said. “It is a safe, fun environment for families and friends to enjoy the additional activities and eat a nutritious meal together.”
The West Des Moines Community School District Summer Food Service Program is officially up and running, 20 years and counting. It has been built and the people have come. This is not a field of dreams. It is reality.
Summer meals can be located at https://www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks, or by dialing 211 on the phone, or calling
1-866-3-HUNGRY, or texting “FOOD” to 877-877. Services are available in English and Spanish.