You may have heard the statistic: In Polk County, 1 in 5 children don’t have adequate access to nutritious foods, according to Feeding America. But behind that number are children who are more at risk to develop poor health—including stomachaches, headaches, colds and fatigue—than their food-secure peers, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit organization focused on eliminating hunger.
What’s more, malnutrition can compromise a child’s brain development, leading to a lifelong lower IQ as well as emotional and behavioral problems, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Recognizing this reality, local nonprofits have stepped up efforts to help the children they serve get the food they need. The Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Iowa’s (BGCCI) Feeding the Future Program, for example, seeks to make sure club members have “consistent access to nutritious foods outside of school time,” says Nicole Schleif Sinn, the organization’s chief development officer.
Offered through all eight club locations, the program started 10 years ago in response to growing insecurity among club kids, Schleif Sinn says. Today, some 2,000 children and teens— all of whom qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches—are served through the program. In 2021, BGCCI served more than 52,000 meals to its members.
Kids have access to the food all year, Schleif Sinn says. After school, they’re served both a snack and a hot dinner, and when the club is open all day, three meals are provided. Some sites also have pantries that members and their families can access. In addition, take-home food bags help ensure they have adequate nutrition over the weekend.
Oakridge Neighborhood, where 52% of the 1,000 residents are under 18, also has boosted efforts to address food insecurity. The on-site Oak Academy, which offers an early learning and preschool program, has a kitchen that prepares breakfast, lunch and two snacks every day for the preschoolers. What’s more, students who participate in the neighborhood’s after-school programming receive a nutritious, and often hot, snack.
This year, Oakridge also has launched several new initiatives. At press time, the organization was building an enclosure for a community refrigerator that will stock fresh foods. In addition, this past summer, “we started two community gardens on our campus, growing items like herbs, lettuce, peppers, okra, squash, cabbage and more,” says Chris Irvine, Oakridge’s vice president of communications.
Plus, Oakridge started the Center Street Farmers’ Market in June to make fresh produce readily available to families. Central Iowa Shelter and Services provided free seedlings at the market, and residents planted them in gardens in front of their own units, Irvine says.
The stigma associated with food insecurity remains a challenge in the effort to alleviate hunger among children, notes Kathlyn Wagner, a former fellow of Future Leaders in Action, a BGCCI program. But by talking about food insecurity, BGCCI not only addresses the stigma but also gives kids a way to connect with their families, she adds. She recalls “talking to … kids directly when distributing weekend meal bags and seeing how excited they were to try items or recipes included in the bags.”
Schleif Sinn says that when children can stop worrying about where their next meal will come from, they can focus on school success: “Our goal is to ensure club members graduate high school on time with a plan for the future.”
Iowa Stops Hunger is an ongoing Business Publications Corp. initiative to raise awareness of food insecurity in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.