In Falls City, feeding children in the summer is a labor of love

Note:  Thousands of children in Nebraska are food insecure and struggle to get enough to eat in the summer months when they are out of school.  Summer Food Service Program sites across the state do amazing work helping feed kids each year to make sure they don’t go hungry.  During “National Summer Food Service Program Week,” we will feature several of these sites that help feed Nebraska kids each summer.

Cathy Judd had lived in Falls City for more than a decade before she found the kitchen she’s standing in this Wednesday morning.  And right away, she knew it was a place she wanted to be.

With a purple apron and a comforting smile, Cathy is setting up for a mid-week lunch that will provide about 30 children on this day with a hot, nutritious meal.

Site coordinator Cathy Judd (left), and volunteers Becky Gilkerson (middle) and daughter Ellicyn Gilkerson (right) prepare meals for the Falls City Summer Food Service Program site.

Site coordinator Cathy Judd (left), and volunteers Becky Gilkerson (middle) and daughter Ellicyn Gilkerson (right) prepare meals for the Falls City Summer Food Service Program site.

Cathy is the first-year coordinator of Falls City’s Summer Food Service Program site, which has been held at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church for the last eight years.  She first became aware of the program several years ago, when caring for her granddaughter in the summer.  Her granddaughter asked Cathy to take her to the lunch to join her friends.  Cathy, quickly realized how important the summer food site was to the Falls City community, located in the extreme southeast corner of the state.

“I’ve seen the work that goes on here, and I would’ve probably volunteered if I hadn’t already been employed,” said Cathy, who works at a Family Nutrition Program in Kansas during much of the year.  “I see a lot of children that either haven’t received a good, healthy meal for breakfast or for dinner that evening.  I wanted to take part in an organization that made sure a child was going to have a healthy meal at least once a day.”

Cathy said she arrives at the kitchen at St. Paul’s each morning between 9:00 and 10:00.  As the site coordinator, she plans the menu each day and recruits and trains volunteers that help make the program run successfully.  Each Summer Food site needs to record the kind and amount of food served each day, as well as the number of meals served.

On this day in Falls City, volunteers help cook hamburgers, slice apples, and prepare the trays for the children, who are soon to arrive.

“(Hunger) affects the child in so many different ways,” Cathy said.  “If they’re in school, they might be sleepy, they might be tired, or thinking about nothing but ‘Is it lunch time yet?’  You’ve got to remember, these kids, a lot of them come from home where both parents are working.  This is going to be the most balanced meal they have all day for a lot of them.”

The Falls City Summer Food site serves more than 1,000 meals each summer.  Organizers have a goal of reaching 1,500 meals served.

The Falls City Summer Food site serves more than 1,000 meals each summer. Organizers have a goal of reaching 1,500 meals served.

The Falls City Summer Food site has grown over the last eight years.  Karen Maze, who works at St. Paul’s, was the site coordinator for the first five years of the program.  Karen said the Nebraska Department of Education, which administers the Summer Food program in Nebraska, provided excellent guidance in getting the program up and running.

The program, which runs weekdays in June and July, has grown from serving 700 meals each summer to 1,100 last year.  Site organizers have a goal of eventually serving 1,500 meals each year, and Karen said there are still more children the program could serve.

“I don’t feel that the kids who need to be here are here,” she said.  “We need to do a better job at getting them here.”

Though the site is held at St. Paul’s, the program is supported by many in the Falls City community, said Father Andrew Chavanak of St. Paul’s.  The Ministerial Association, a multi-denominational group of churches in the Falls City area, donates some funds to supplement the United States Department of Agriculture reimbursements.  That helps purchase local food to go along with commodities provided by the USDA and pay a stipend to the site coordinator.

Cathy said the people of Falls City are quick to ask how they can help with meals.  Many community members donate from their gardens so the kids can have fresh fruits and vegetables, and the local supermarkets often set aside quality items for when Cathy shows up with her shopping cart on Monday mornings.

The site is working to extend its outreach and feed more local children in the summer.  Flyers informing parents about the summer food program are sent home from school with kids.  Cathy puts up her own flyers throughout the town, and the local newspaper and radio stations also publicize the program.

Another way organizers in Falls City are trying to get more children through the door is entertainment and drawings.  Local businesses donate items and gift certificates Cathy uses as prizes in a drawing each day.  Kids must be present to win and the more times they come to lunch, the more their name goes into the drawing.

Once every few weeks, Cathy arranges for a guest speaker to talk to the kids.  On this day, local firefighter Kenny Simpson gives the children lessons in fire safety and answers questions before lunch.

IMG_0523The way the organizers of the Falls City Summer Food Service Program site see it, making sure local children have enough to eat in the summer is part of what a good community should do, especially when training is available through the Nebraska Department of Education and meals funded through the USDA.  Also, to make starting or expanding a site easier, the Nebraska Department of Education manages a grant program providing up to $15,000 for certain costs in eligible programs.

If someone is considering starting a Summer Food Service Program site to feed kids in their community, Cathy said the gratification of seeing kids get a hot meal will quickly make up their minds.

“You’d have to ask them do you care if children eat in your community?” Cathy said.  “If so, this is one way to be assured that child will get a good, balanced meal.  It’s a great way to reassure the community the young people are being fed.”

See more photos in our Summer Food Service Program online photo album

To find out more information about the SFSP grant and how to start a program to help kids in your community, contact the Nebraska Department of Education, which oversees the Summer Food Service Program in Nebraska, by calling (800) 731-2233, or visit the USDA’s SFSP website.

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