Suzy Ketelsen is the Food and Nutrition Department Manager for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. The Center's Stephen Dykstra had the opportunity to speak with Ketelsen about the important role summer feeding programs play for kids and families in Cedar Rapids.
Tell me about how the summer feeding programs works in Cedar Rapids.
Running the program is a collective community effort, with funding support from the Iowa Department of Education. A lot of collaboration and organization goes into making these feeding sites successful. We operate out of self-contained kitchens, meaning we don’t have to worry about coordinating food deliveries—other organizations in the community, our valuable partners, oversee that aspect. Through experience we know offering incentives aside from food is the key to getting students to participate. That’s why many of our sites are paired with summer schools or other structured activities in the community.
What does a typical day look like?
A typical day depends on the kinds of programs students are involved in. Many attend a structured program and then get a meal—either breakfast and lunch, or lunch and a snack.
How does having access to summer meals make a difference for the kids who participate?
It makes sense, but we often forget that efforts to feed kids shouldn’t end with the school year. Summer meals are a great way for kids to have access to healthy food that they might not have at home. And since any kid can participate in the program, feeding sites help families fill in the gaps, especially for those right on the threshold of qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches at school. Beyond providing kids with nutritious meals, the purpose of summer feeding is to create consistency, thereby reducing stress. Knowing they will be fed every day gives these kids structure and comfort.
What are challenges facing the program?
Access to feeding sites is an ongoing challenge for us. It can be difficult for families that relocate to a different area, travel for the summer or are simply busy, to access food on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, another challenge comes from not being able to feed the entire family; only kids 18 and younger are eligible for meals. We also work hard to explain the program in the best way possible, but there’s still a lot of stigma associated with it.
What might surprise Iowans who don’t know that much about the program?
Any kid in Iowa can participate; program eligibility is not based on income level. I think people also don’t realize how good the menu is in terms of nutrition. Our sites are very welcoming, and people aren’t singled out or judged for participating.
Do kids have a favorite meal?
The classic macaroni and cheese is really popular. Other favorites: walking tacos, fruit parfaits, chicken patty on bun.