Summer meals site reaches Chase County kids

There’s been a hub of commotion outside a bright red trailer in the small town of Strong City Tuesday and Thursday nights for the last couple of months.

The trailer is normally home to a local barbecue catering business, but starting this summer, it’s transformed into “That Pop-up Restaurant,” which is serving food to hungry children in Strong City and Cottonwood Falls.

It’s fulfilling a definite need. In Strong City, 77 percent of children qualify for free and reduced-price meals, according to Matthew Shepherd, president and CEO of Social Innovation Laboratory, which sponsors and oversees this summer meals site. Shepherd’s goal was to find a way to feed kids in a fun and innovative way.

“It’s sort of a build-your-own bar. The idea was we could do several types of meals (burritos, salads and rice bowls) with all the same basic core ingredients,” Shepherd said.

The restaurant is the first summer meals site in Chase County, and has already served more than 375 meals to residents. Almost 190 of those meals have been free for children under age 19 through funds from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.

“I was glad to see our community is using it because I think it’s a great resource and tool that’s needed,” said Kelly Glanville, site coordinator.

As a local teacher, Glanville sees childhood food insecurity first-hand, and it’s not a problem unique to any particular area or community.

For every 100 Kansas children who received free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, only nine ate SFSP meals during the summer in 2016, according to Food Research & Action Center’s 2017 Summer Nutrition Status Report.

For four local children, the opportunity to spend time with friends and receive a meal drew them to the trailer.

“We thought, ‘might as well’,” said Julian Gadbury, 11, who arrived on his bicycle with friends. It wasn’t long until they learned it was their favorite spot in town.

“Of all places in Strong City, this is my favorite because they give you free burritos,” said Leaya Francis, 11, who accompanied Gadbury, and has been to the site twice with her older brother Gavyn, 12.

Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit, nonpartisan justice center dedicated to vulnerable and excluded Kansans, is trying to help more children, like those in Strong City, access nutritious meals during the summer by advocating for expanding existing summer feeding programs and creating new ones in underserved areas. These efforts have been aided with the help of a $680,000 grant from the Kansas Health Foundation.

Kansas Appleseed began combatting summer hunger in 2014 when there were 44 counties without a summer meals site. This year, there are 15, said Christina Ostmeyer, Kansas Appleseed summer meals advocate.

The Kansas State Department of Education has been a big part of that work as well, she said.

Kris Larkin, community advocate, said Chase County was one of 19 counties without a site last year. If it wasn’t for Kansas Appleseed’s help in getting the right people together for the job, the restaurant in Strong City wouldn’t have become a reality, she said.

One of those people was Shepherd, who attended a Kansas Appleseed convening with the
interest of tackling food insecurity.

His organization wanted to offer food that met the USDA’s nutrition guidelines, but was presented in a more attractive way than a traditional shelf-stable sack-lunch, all while being offered in an environment free of social stigmas associated with summer meal programs.

So far, the innovative program in Strong City has been a success.

Shepherd hopes to share the improved summer meals concept with others so they can replicate the concept in their communities and reach more hungry children in need. He’s even considering helping with menus, websites and paperwork, leaving only the food preparation and delivery to the communities themselves.

Several town leaders have already expressed an interest in replicating the program.

As for Kansas Appleseed, the work continues. This July they’ve been teaming up with KSDE for Lunch Across Kansas Month to highlight communities with summer meal sites that host activities and events during mealtime.

During the summer months, many kids miss out on enrichment activities and nutrition-rich foods that they received during the school year. By the time these students come back to school, they aren’t ready to learn, which financially impacts both families and schools, Ostmeyer said.

Larkin would like to have an activity at the Strong City site next year to encourage more children to visit again. For Gadbury, returning is already on his mind.

“I have to ask my mom to take us here again,” he said to the group under the shade of a tree. It wasn’t long before they were back on their bikes heading home with full bellies.

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To learn more about Lunch Across Kansas Month, please click here.

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