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Summer Meals Program Offers More Than Free Food

Amy Mayer
A banner announcing the summer food program hangs in the entryway of the Ames Public Library.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture first piloted a program to offer free summer meals to children. The program became a permanent fixture in 1975, and last year, schools, libraries, recreation centers and other groups in Iowa served more than 1.3 million meals and snacks to children under 18 through the Summer Food Service Program.

At a minimum, the program bridges the gap between school years for students who rely on free lunch, and sometimes breakfast, at school to sustain adequate nutrition. But while feeding hungry children remains the priority, Ann Feilmann, chief of the bureau of nutrition and health services at the Iowa Department of Education, says it’s become much more.

The meals are available to all children, regardless of whether they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch during the school year. 

“There are also households where both parents are working and there’s not someone that has high cooking skills,” she says, “plus it’s also a place to go and socialize with friends.”

Some communities have brought multiple partners together to offer more than just lunch and social time. She says Davis County converted an old school bus so it could deliver meals to rural children, who recognized the driver.

“The kids were so excited to see him come,” Feilmann says, “and they also connected with a book program where they were able to get books to give out.”

First Book, the nonprofit that provided free books to Davis County, created this video about the southeast Iowa program.

Credit courtesy Iowa Dept. of Education
The Sioux City school district will use this bus to bring its free summer meals to more children.

Feilmann says this year the Sioux City school district is adding a bus and calling its program “Food on the Fly.”

Most sites will serve meals every weekday during the summer school vacation, except on the Fourth of July.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames