School lunch is a memory for nearly everyone. Some people have memories of rejecting the “mystery meat” served daily, while others have memories of being able to eat a meal that day because of the service.
According to the latest statistics available through Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study, 18.2 percent of Douglas County’s children are food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of nutritious food. In Sarpy County, the food-insecurity rate is 15.3 percent, and the study shows similar rates in other counties surrounding the metro Omaha area.
Local families may struggle to put food on the table due to a wide range of temporary or long-term conditions that create financial hardship, but circumstances don’t really matter when a growing child isn’t getting enough to eat, says Tammy Yarmon, the Nutrition Services director for Omaha Public Schools.
“Hungry kids just don’t learn,” Yarmon says. “They spend their time in school thinking about how hungry they are.”
Many hungry schoolchildren can count on receiving lunch daily during the school year. The National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program, provides nutritionally balanced low-cost or free lunches. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service administers the program at the federal level, and the Nebraska Department of Education’s Office of Nutrition Services facilitates the program throughout the state via agreements with local school districts and private schools.
Despite the relatively low prices of school lunches, some families find that a couple of dollars a day—especially if those families have several children—is hard to come by five days a week. Susan Eustice, a spokesperson for the Omaha-area Salvation Army, says more than 40 percent of children in Nebraska receive free or reduced-rate school lunches with eligibility based on household income. “In some schools, these numbers climb as high as 80 or 90 percent,” she says.
Yarmon emphasizes that the application process for free or reduced-rate lunches “is the same everywhere” and that families can apply at any time if their financial situation changes.
And the program keeps in mind the privacy of the students. Children use ID codes connected to lunch accounts, so their peers have no way of knowing how much their families are paying.
Other school-based, government-backed programs provide breakfast, snacks, and/or dinner associated with before-school and after-school enrichment activities. Various community organizations fill the gap through “backpack” programs that send eligible children home with food for the weekend and mobile food pantries that reach families in need directly at school.
“We’re here for our kids and we will do whatever we can to make sure they get a meal,” Yarmon says. “We all have the same focus: our eye is on the child.”
But what happens over the long summer break when kids aren’t eating meals at school and parents may also be incurring additional childcare costs? “Families must seek other resources for meals when school is out of session,” Eustice says. For eight years, a partnership between The Food Bank for the Heartland and the Salvation Army has offered Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen, a program that brings meals directly to hungry kids.
“We help provide canteen units and help serve the kids,” says Joel Arthur, divisional director of emergency disaster services for the Salvation Army. Arthur works with KCK. “We work together hand-in-hand with the Food Bank. It’s a great partnership, we love working with them. It’s all to help kids in Omaha who desperately need food.”
Through KCK, meals are delivered by four mobile distribution units throughout Omaha, Bellevue, Ralston, La Vista, Valley, and Blair from early June through mid-August. KCK sites don’t have to be associated with enrichment programs, and families don’t have to go through an application process or provide proof of income.
“Last summer we served 82,782 meals. It’s a great program that’s filling an important need during a critical time of the year when not as many resources are available with school out of session,” says Angie Grote, communications manager at Food Bank for the Heartland. “[Without that daily meal to rely on,] we’ve heard parents say their children would have had to choose between having only lunch or having only dinner.”
Meal assistance opens the door for participation in other assistance programs. Yarmon says that families experiencing economic insecurity or financial hardship may be less likely to be able to stay in one home long-term, so “going through the schools and through the children, we’re more apt to reach the families,” she explains.
“We’ve had a really good experience with the school-based mobile pantries and we’re considering expanding the program,” Grote says.
Arthur agrees that food programs that assist children are often the key to connecting a family with other services that can help insure improved safety and stability.
“The parents know the children are there,” Arthur says. “They come with the kids sometimes, so information is often passed on to the parents as to where they can get more food and other help.”
How to Help
There are numerous ways to support the effort to feed local children and families, says Angie Grote, communications manager for Food Bank for the Heartland.
“We are grateful for all donations we receive, whether they’re food, funds or someone’s time. It’s important to us to make the best possible use of resources we are given. There are a lot of ways for folks in the community to get involved,” she says.
The organization’s website, foodbankheartland.org, is a great source for information on how to organize a food drive or donate food, how to make financial contributions, and for what tasks volunteers are needed. The number of volunteer hours annually equates approximately 20 full-time workers, and helps make it possible for the Food Bank to distribute food to 600 nonprofit organizations in Nebraska and western Iowa which serve individuals and families in their communities.
“We have tremendous community support, and our operations wouldn’t be what they are without that support,” Grote says.
The local Salvation Army also accepts contributions and volunteers, spokesperson Susan Eustice says. Interested individuals can find out more on the website, centralusa.salvationarmy.org/omaha, and potential volunteers are encouraged to contact the local volunteer coordinator at 402-898-6000.
“It’s not too early to sign up for the summer program [Kids Cruisin’ Kitchen],” Eustice says.
Families who are struggling but don’t quite meet the income requirements for free or reduced-rate lunches for their children can receive assistance through donations to The Omaha Public Schools Foundation, says Tammy Yarmon, the Nutrition Services director for Omaha Public Schools. Through a website link at ops.thankyou4caring.org/donation-programs, donors can direct their contributions to pay off a school’s lunch debts, for instance. “You determine where it goes,” she says.
For more information on how to help, contact The Nutrition Services office at 531-299-0230 or email Yarmon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was printed in the Summer 2019 edition of Family Guide.