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Feeding a community

Marquita Spading and Isabella Shymansky, with freshly-painted faces, both enjoy watermelon and the other nutritional foods served during the free Summer Lunch and Fun program in North Liberty. Face painting was one of the kids’ activities offered to celebrate this summer’s last lunch day, Aug. 14, before the start of school. (photo by Lori Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– Turns out, there is such a thing as a free lunch.
And North Liberty served more than 3,700 of them over the summer.
North Liberty’s free Summer Lunch and Fun program celebrated its final weekday lunch on Friday, Aug. 14, with volunteer recognitions, cake and Dilly Bars for dessert and additional activities for kids, completing the program’s second successful year.
The North Liberty Unity Coalition initiated the program in 2014 (originally called “Feed our Kids”) as a way to feed kids who rely on free or reduced-price school lunches during the nine months of the school year, but whose families may struggle with food insecurity when school is not in session. With no income guidelines or proof of need required, the program was open five days a week to all North Liberty kids from birth to age 18. Children, accompanied by adults, enjoyed a nutritious, free daily meal and stayed for child-friendly activities or learning experiences, with volunteers serving the food and organizing and conducting the activities. Meals were provided by area food stores and restaurants, either as a donation or at low cost to the program, and local nonprofit organizations, businesses, individuals and the City of North Liberty donated funds and in-kind goods and services to launch the initiative.
The program was so successful, what started as a group of around 20 attendees quickly grew to an average of 60 each day, and by last August, more than 2,400 meals had been served and over 150 volunteers had logged man hours to help make it happen.
This summer, between June 8 and Aug. 13, 3,700 meals were served, said Summer Lunch and Fun Program Coordinator Kim Ruth.
“This year we averaged more than 70 meals per day,” said Ruth. “Within a one-year time span, that is phenomenal growth.”
The City of North Liberty hired Ruth this year to serve as part-time program coordinator, a position funded from the city’s social services budget. Volunteer Sara Langenberg said Ruth has been a great asset in the program’s second year.
“Kim has done a fantastic job coordinating the volunteers, food donations, menus, and so much more,” said Langenberg. “She hit the ground running with a great attitude. I’m grateful the city funded her part-time position and was able to find such a gem to fill it. The kids and parents love her.”
Since renovations to the exterior of the city’s own historic Ranshaw House had been completed, lunch was served from the porch and enjoyed under the shade of the giant old oak trees that grace the front lawn.
“I think our new location has definitely drawn a lot of new people in,” said Ruth. “Being at the Ranshaw House on this big lawn, I think it will only grow from here.”
The best example of positive feedback from participants, she added, was when a group of families stepped up to conduct the day’s activity prior to the Aug. 14 wrap-up event.
“They made thank-you cards for the donating businesses, and held a water balloon activity,” she said. “They said they wanted to give back to the program after what we’d done for them. I think that is really cool,” said Ruth.
Erica Wilkinson was one of the group of family members who decided to provide the activity. She and her family moved to North Liberty just one month ago, and when she learned about the program through a friend, she brought her three children regularly so they could get to know others in their new town.
“I just couldn’t believe this was available to the community,” said Wilkinson. “We moved here from Nashville, and there isn’t anything like this there. We came once, and we were hooked.”
Wilkinson and friends Britt West and Ali Holt came up with the idea to provide the activity as a way of saying thank you to the city, program staff and volunteers.
“We wanted to give back (to the program) by volunteering ourselves,” said Wilkinson.
It’s the same positive feeling Phil Holman and his family experienced; he regularly brought his four boys to enjoy the lunch and activities.
“It’s summertime. It’s a good thing for the kids to get involved in, and it takes some time away from the parents having to do the entertaining,” said Holman. “It’s been great. I’m really happy to have this.”
Holman’s son Mitchell, who will be entering second grade this year, said he liked the food served over the summer as well as the activities.
“I liked the water balloons,” said Mitchell, “and doing soccer and making boomerangs.”
Participant Anna Canton agreed that coming to the summer lunch program was a great way to spend part of each day in a slightly more structured setting. She brought her children regularly last year as well.
“We like it because during the summer it gives the kids something to do, and a way for us to interact with people in the community we might not otherwise get to interact with,” said Canton. “They’ve developed a lot of friendships here. We just love it.”
With milk, fresh fruits and vegetables served with every catered meal, Canton said it also offered opportunities for her children to try new foods she might not think to serve at home.
The nutrition aspect is an important part of the program, said Ruth, and she credited the participating restaurants and grocers.
“The food suppliers have been fantastic. A lot of groups have helped me last minute, sometimes on the fly when things have fallen through,” Ruth said. “There’s no hesitation on helping. The support from this community– between the people, the food suppliers, the vendors, the volunteers… it’s been phenomenal.”
The North Liberty Unity Coalition is a collection of representatives from social service agencies, city departments, school staff, and church representatives working together to provide outreach and meet the needs of the city’s youth and families. Its mission is to enhance the health and wellbeing of children, families and neighborhoods in North Liberty. The group has organized past activities like neighborhood picnics, Midnight Sports, a welcome wagon initiative and other programs to keep families connected in positive ways to the community.
The free Summer Lunch and Fun program is yet another way that group, together with hundreds of volunteers, donors and business supporters, does more than just feed North Liberty’s children; it also nurtures the community’s soul.
“I’ve been so impressed with this program and the community,” said Ruth. “I’m not originally from this area, so coming here and getting to know the city staff and all the people I’ve met through this organization has been a blessing to me.”