Delivering meals to low-income people is a long-standing way to improve nutrition, but a project in Iola Unified School District 257 will bring the whole diner.
Kathy Koehn, nutrition and wellness coordinator at USD 257, said students taking vocational classes in the district are working to remodel an older school bus as a “traveling bistro” where children who may not have access to healthy food during the summer can get lunch.
The students are building tables and turning half the seats to create restaurant booths, as well as decorating the bus and adding space to carry books, she said.
The Meals and Reading Vehicle, or MARV, will stop in three low-income neighborhoods in Iola and at sites in the towns of Gas and LaHarpe to serve lunch on weekdays during the summer, Koehn said. The southeast Kansas district also offers meals through its summer programs at some of the schools, she said.
Many parents work and may not be able to bring their children to a central location for a healthy lunch, Koehn said, making it important to take the food to where the kids are in summer.
“There’s a lot of kids that still need to have access to these meals,” she said.
‘Way beyond food’
The Kansas State Department of Education and nonprofit groups are encouraging communities to get creative in finding ways to feed children during the summer. In recent years, Kansas has ranked at or near the bottom of states based on the percentage of qualifying children who receive summer meals.
Kelly Chanay, assistant director for child nutrition and wellness at KSDE, said the meal sites can attack several problems, including hunger, lack of opportunities for socialization and physical activity, and accidents when children try to prepare meals for themselves. Some also offer mentoring and enrichment activities, she said.
“If the children aren’t well-nourished during the summer, it impacts their ability to learn when school starts up,” she said. “The summer food service program goes way beyond food.”
Schools, nonprofits and government agencies can sponsor meal sites and receive reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If more than half of the children in an area are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, USDA will reimburse all meals. Children from a family of four are eligible for reduced-price meals if their annual family income is less than $44,955, or 185 percent of the federal poverty line.
In areas with less poverty, a site can only be reimbursed for meals to qualified children, requiring more record keeping.
The state has made some progress in increasing access to summer meals, Chanay said. In 2014, 44 of the 105 Kansas counties didn’t have a meal site, but that number fell to 35 in 2015. Still, that left a third of the state’s counties without a site, with the northwest corner and rural areas particularly lacking.
Transportation is one of the biggest challenges in rural areas, Chanay said. KSDE encourages potential host sites to look at areas where children might congregate in the summer, such as libraries, swimming pools and athletic programs, she said.
KSDE proposed a pilot project in 2015 to increase meal access in rural areas by setting up 10 sites where children could have a meal and take home shelf-stable food for several days, decreasing the number of times parents would have to make trips for food.
USDA said it didn’t have any additional funds for pilot projects that year, but Chanay said KSDE is talking with Kansas congressional representatives and is optimistic the project could move forward.
Nonprofit groups also are encouraging communities to start or expand meal sites, and some are offering small grants. Rebekah Gaston, childhood hunger initiative director at Kansas Appleseed, said the group is offering grants ranging from $100 to $1,000 for start-up costs related to new summer meal sites or for “innovative” projects to increase the number of children receiving meals at existing sites. The grant funding came from the Kansas Health Foundation.
USDA reimburses the cost of meals at a fair rate, Gaston said, but it doesn’t pay for children’s activities or meals for parents. Activities tend to reduce children’s concerns about being identified as poor if they go to a meal site, while offering meals to parents increases the odds they will bring their children, she said.
“Some of the extras that help bring kids to sites aren’t always covered,” she said.
The United Methodist Health Ministry Fund also is offering up to $2,000 in grants to member congregations that host a meal site or assist community groups in running one. The congregations can decide how involved they want to be, including whether they want to add other activities, said Katie Schoenhoff, program officer at UMHMF. They also don’t have to have the meal site in a church building if they could better reach children at other locations, such as a park or a Boys and Girls Club, she said.
Congregations that participated last year “really talk about the need for community cooperation,” she said. “One of the key pieces is getting community involvement so you find kids where they’re at.”
Debbie Makings, who attends Larned United Methodist Church, said their congregation was too small to consistently field enough volunteers to run a meal program but was able to provide food and a building. Groups such as the Lions Club, National Honor Society and city employees then stepped in as volunteer cooks and servers for a week, and that kept the site going for the summer, she said.
“We never had a problem with too few people showing up,” she said.
They served about 75 children per day last summer and hope to serve more this summer, Makings said.
“I would say, just jump in and do it,” she said.
Applications to host summer meal sites are due to KSDE by May 1.
Editor’s note: The Kansas Health Foundation is the primary funder of the Kansas Health Institute, which is the parent organization of the editorially independent KHI News Service, a partner in Heartland Health Monitor.
Megan Hart is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach her on Twitter @meganhartMC