Growing Up Hungry Next to Growing Food
Just fewer than 7,000 people call Minnesota’s Lac qui Parle County home. Mostly agricultural land, food grows all over the county, so one may think there couldn’t possibly be an issue with having enough food to eat.
Yet, the need for food assistance in the county’s Dawson, Minn. is pervasive: 39 percent of the K-12 children qualify for and use free and reduced-price lunch programs during the academic year.
This rural community is on the far western border of both Second Harvest Heartland’s 59-county service area and Minnesota itself. Miles of farms growing food aside, the kids of Dawson and the surrounding county face food insecurity, especially in the summer, when they cannot rely on accessible meals at school.
Peggy Hill, the Food Service Director during the academic year at Dawson-Boyd School, knows the importance of getting meals to kids. She is lead to a Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) site, which distributes free meals to kids K-12, no questions asked.
“If you’re a family that’s living paycheck to paycheck,” Peggy said, “think of how this program makes that money go for the families. I have four children; I know what how much that costs. I think a summer meal program is one of the best services provided to families.”
Peggy came to Second Harvest Heartland with a problem she saw in her community. SFSP is a federally funded program, but some sites within Second Harvest Heartland’s service area can apply for supplemental grants from us to help with additional challenges other than the cost of food itself.
While Peggy and her team have done impressive and increasingly successful work in distributing meals, she still found it difficult to get kids (and their parents) to drive into town just for lunch. Part of that barrier is stigma-related, since some parents and their children may feel afraid to ask for help. Another part is logistical—depending on how far the family lives from the SFSP meal site, it may be a long commute a parent might not have time for during working hours.
To solve this problem, Peggy applied for a grant from Second Harvest Heartland, and her team started the Blackjack Club.
The name is borrowed from the Dawson-Boyd School’s regular mascot—fitting, because the site is made possible by the school, its students and its other summer programming. “Everyone works together—that’s what makes this successful,” Peggy said.
The Blackjack Club hosts a greenhouse for the kids to grow fruits and vegetables from seeds to harvest (produce that will then be used in meals for the students in the fall), a weekly book to read, and experts to teach the kids about beekeeping, the environment and more. Peggy described one week this summer where the kids took bug viewers and walked around the school park to find and identify insects to learn about from a book they had received on that Monday.
The Blackjack Club provides a fun and educational space for kids of all economic backgrounds. The SFSP meals each day are for all kids in Dawson.
Peggy said there is so much to do with the Blackjack Club, the kids hang out pretty much all day instead of just meal times. “To get their parents to bring their kids to come in from the country, there needs to be something else going on than just a meal. There’s enough programming sometimes to last from 9 to 4,” Peggy said, and with child care provided that whole time, parents can drop their kids off in the morning and pick them up on the way home from work.
Other than the deliberate message that these meals are for all children regardless of family income status, Peggy said the high school students dramatically reduce any stigma among the younger kids. The older kids are involved all year round—during the school year, high school shop classes design and build birdhouses for the Blackjack Club to paint and use during the summer.
“We have a group of high school senior boys that lift weights in the mornings [during the summer],” Peggy said. “They come lift in the morning and eat [SFSP] breakfast right after. Even the coaches are kind of tying all the things they want the kids to do around our meals. It’s always a positive to have the high school boys—the younger kids see that, and suddenly it’s cool.”
The numbers of meals served at this SFSP site in June increased 35 percent from the June of last year, and July showed an increase as well.
The increase is, Peggy said, because of the Blackjack Club. “When I was young, we all knew who got free and reduced lunch. Kids who had free and reduced had to go into the kitchen to work,” Peggy said. “[With SFSP] I had to work to get people to understand it’s for everyone—it’s for every kid.”
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