By Peggy Ingraham
The most recent blog to appear in this space discussed the new “sign language” that I noticed on my daily drive to work and referenced the key words “educate,” “collaborate,” innovate,” and “invigorate” splashed across banners on a busy commuter route. Those words have continued to resonate in our heads here at NFESH, as we hope they have in yours. So it was with great delight that we found a news story in an Iowa City newspaper that described a pilot program at a local senior center which was doing what the banners asked.
The project, the paper reported, was a new intergenerational meal program operating three days a week during the summer months. Children can accompany elders to the Iowa City Senior Center, where they can receive a free lunch while the senior participates in the senior meal program. The meals for both seniors and children are prepared by the Center’s partner and regular caterer. The kids meals are part of Summer Nutrition Program that operates across the country to ensure that children who regularly depend on free school lunches have access to healthy meals when school is not in session. Typically these programs operate in a variety of venues such as parks, libraries and churches. In those settings there are no food accommodations for adults who are related to the children and who themselves might suffer from food insecurity and need access to healthful meals. And, typically, such programs offer only cold meals like sandwiches, etc. that can be easily transported to mobile sites. The meals served to children at the Iowa City Senior Center are hot, but carefully designed not only to meet all school lunch requirements but also to appeal to children’s food preferences.
Believing that some of those same foods may actually appeal to seniors too, the Center allows the seniors eating with the youngsters to choose either the regular senior meal or the school lunch meal, although it is not provided free to adults. They typically pay $4.00 for the meal, but Center Coordinator LaTasha DeLoach points out that financial assistance is available to help low-income seniors cover meal costs. That’s only one way the Center helps address food insecurity. Another is through its Simple and Free Pantry Exchange, where citizens can donate food items that they will not use. DeLoach abhors food waste and sees this initiative as one small way to reduce it while making folks aware of how much they waste and giving them an opportunity to help their neighbors. It is a success! The food, she says, rarely stays on the shelves for more than two days.
When I asked LaTasha if there were any grandparent-grandchild groups among those having lunch at her Center, she responded happily that the first participant in the program was a grandmother with three grandchildren, and that they still attend every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Why is that important? Because, as NFESH has been reporting for years now, research shows that many grandparents residing in a household with grandchildren are at risk of hunger. In 2017 nearly 16 percent – or one in six – grandparents in that living arrangement are food insecure. School lunch programs are particularly important in this context, because they reassure the seniors, who typically make sure that the children eat first, that their younger family members are getting fed. But when the school buses stop running in summer, it can be a problem. Although Summer Nutrition Programs operate in various locales, they are not always accessible and may end up separating family members and causing grandparents to miss their own meals. But not in Iowa City, where lunchtime is also family time.
Follow the sign language and follow the leaders. Everyone will be better for it.