We have child nutrition on our minds this week.

Food insecurity in the home—when household members go hungry or struggle to avoid hunger at times during the year—can be a tremendous source of family stress. Hungry kids are less able to focus on learning, playing and engaging with caregiver, the activities that help them develop the cognitive and emotional skills they need to thrive as adults. Poor nutrition in early childhood has also been linked with a lifelong shift in the body’s metabolism and metabolism-related disease, including diabetes and heart disease.

Summer can be a challenging time for families to keep enough food on the table, especially families of the nearly 196,000 kids in Iowa who participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program during the school year. We'll tell you about how one summer feeding effort in Cedar Rapids is ensuring kids have enough to eat when school isn't in session.

We also have a quick update on SNAP, the nation’s most effective anti-hunger program—and an important income supplement to help people get back on their feet after tough times. SNAP is a big piece of the federal Farm Bill, which needs to be reauthorized by September 30.

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.

Major congressional activity on the Farm Bill isn’t likely until September, but lead up activities are happening now. 

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst was one of nine senators, and the only member from Iowa’s delegation, appointed last week to serve on the conference committee. This appointed group is charged with negotiating between the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill, legislation that governs and funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The House named its conference committee members last month. 

The best outcome of those negotiations for Iowa is a strong, bipartisan farm bill that protects SNAP. Fortunately, the Senate farm bill meets this criterion. Unlike the partisan House bill, which would take away food assistance from thousands of struggling Iowans through cuts and harmful changes, the Senate version protects and strengthens SNAP, ensuring that SNAP will continue to help feed children and their parents, seniors, people with disabilities, and working people with low pay and inconsistent hours who struggle to make ends meet.

SNAP helps 1 in 9 Iowans put food on the table. It keeps nearly 70,000 Iowans out of poverty. Research shows adults who received what used to be known as food stamps when they were young children are more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to suffer long-term health problems like obesity and heart disease.

We urge our House and Senate lawmakers to work across party lines to ensure that the conference agreement on the farm bill adopts the Senate’s approach to SNAP.

As a member of the Early Childhood Iowa (ECI) Steering Committee, the Center's Sheila Hansen met on August 2 with the ECI state board, along with other members of the committee. Collectively, the two groups worked to update the strategic plan using information from the 2018 Needs Assessment. ECI is a coalition of stakeholders that strive to improve the access to and quality of child care, education and health care for Iowa's youngest kids.


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