• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

Serving the Community

North Liberty’s free summer lunch program a stirring success
North Liberty Police Chief Diane Venenga accepts a certificate of thanks from volunteer Malik Scott in recognition of the police department’s support of the Feed Our Kids summer lunch program. The program culminated in a lunch celebration on Aug. 15. (photo by Lori Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– It started with a question posed by one small group:
When families, strapped for grocery money, rely on public schools’ free and reduced meal programs to help sustain nutrition throughout the school year, what happens in the summer months when kids are on their own?
It was answered by an entire community and a volunteer force of over 150 people.
The North Liberty Unity Coalition is a group of representatives from social service agencies, city departments, school staff, church representatives and other individuals who seek collaborative ways to address needs in the city’s ever-changing demographics. Its mission is to enhance the health and wellbeing of children, families and neighborhoods in North Liberty. The group has organized past activities such as neighborhood picnics, Midnight Sports, a welcome wagon initiative and other programs to keep families connected in a positive way to their community.
This spring, the coalition organized North Liberty’s first-ever Feed Our Kids program for youth.
“It’s a need we’ve always known has been here, with the amount of kids who receive free breakfast and lunch during the school year,” said Tracey Mulcahey, North Liberty Assistant City Administrator and member of the Unity Coalition. “We started talking with the state about five years ago about doing a free lunch program, but we found out we don’t qualify to have an open program like Coralville has. There isn’t enough volume of free and reduced lunch in any one school, and we don’t have an income-qualified tract in our census.”
Therefore, the Unity Coalition assumed the responsibility for creating its own summer lunch program. Nutritional food was offered free each weekday, along with an optional fun and educational activity afterward– everything from a butterfly seminar to composting lessons, cupcake decorating, a dietician’s presentation and bubble and balloon activities. The program was made possible through partnerships with several local restaurants and grocery stores, North Liberty city departments, and many area businesses. Food and supplies were provided through donations. It was staffed entirely by volunteers, and offered to all kids under age 18, regardless of income.
In the nine weeks of operation, the program served more than 2,400 free meals to North Liberty’s kids.
“We said at the beginning if we fed 20 kids a day, we’d be thrilled,” said Mulcahey. “We’ve averaged 60 kids a day.”
On Friday, Aug. 16, organizers, volunteers and participants gathered outside the North Liberty Community Center to celebrate the program’s great success, handing out certificates to donors, recognizing volunteers and filling bellies with one last delicious meal.
Mayor Gerry Kuhl offered remarks to the crowd.
“One of the great tragedies of this rich country is the 16 percent of the population who are food challenged,” said Kuhl. “But you, collectively, have taken action to alleviate the problem in North Liberty. As a result, you fed 2,400 children and 500 adults who likely would have scrambled for lunch.”
Mulcahey said foregoing an income restriction for participants was meant to make the program all-inclusive.
“If you have two kids come to the table, and maybe one of them has just moved to the community and is not income-qualified, how do you say you can feed one but not the other?” Mulcahey said. “Our goal was to make it more of a program, and not really a charity.”
Volunteer March Sutton of Solon said she thought the lack of a low-income requirement was the right thing to do.
“Sometimes it’s a barrier, if people think when they come, then everyone will know (their income status),’” Sutton said. “But you never know who’s hungry; you don’t always know what hunger looks like. It was a neat opportunity for all children to participate.”
Sutton brought her own children to the program as volunteers, through the family’s affiliation with One Ancient Hope Church. The family made sandwiches and served the meal, a faith lesson in serving others.
“They thought it was great,” said Sutton. “They thought we should come back three days a week.”
Some organizations did come regularly to assist, noted volunteer organizer Sara Langenberg of North Liberty.
“As soon as I got involved, I was immediately impressed by all the people who donated money, donated time and donated food; businesses and individuals that really just gave back to the community,” said Langenberg. “I’m really proud to be a resident here.”
Also proud was Nicky Pearson, mother of participant and volunteer, Penn sixth-grader Malik Scott.
Malik was leaving the house earlier each day, Pearson noticed, for the lunch program that didn’t start until 11 a.m. When she attended the final celebration, she was pleased to see Malik receive volunteer recognition for his service.
“It surprised me,” said Pearson, “I’m glad he is doing something good, and staying out of trouble.”
“I like helping people,” said Malik, who assisted the adults in setting up tents, preparing food, counting participants and cleaning up almost daily. “It makes me feel happy. And excited.”
Malik’s newfound attitude of service was just one of extras served up by the free lunch program, said Kris Hynek, Family Resource Center director at Penn Elementary School.
“When you have something like this, that the entire family can come to, everybody is getting a good meal and their bellies are full, that is just one more thing to help ease some stress for a parent, when she knows her kids are getting fed,” said Hynek. “This is a positive thing for any kid in the whole community.”
North Liberty council member Chris Hoffman praised all those involved.
“I think it shows tremendous pride in our community by those who gave money and time and donated food,” said Hoffman. “I’m overwhelmed by the number of people and businesses who stepped up and helped when asked by an organization here in North Liberty.”
Langenberg agreed.
“This program really demonstrated that North Liberty residents, businesses and city officials are willing to go above and beyond to help families who live here.”