OWATONNA — Just because the school year is over does not mean the work of Owatonna Public Schools Nutrition Services is complete — far from it, in fact, as free meals for children from ages 1-18 will continue to be offered throughout this summer.
Cold lunches will be provided Monday-Thursday starting this Monday through Aug. 8 at the Owatonna Public Library from 11:45 a.m. to 12:10 p.m., with hot lunches those same dates from 12:15-12:45 p.m. at Owatonna Middle School. The middle school will also host breakfast from 8-8:30 a.m. Monday-Thursday from July 8 through Aug. 1.
“We’re back at the middle school after a couple of years at the high school,” when Owatonna Middle School was unavailable due to summer construction, said Ali Diley, the district’s director of Nutrition Services. “We could move back to” OHS in the future if participation proves drastically lower at the middle school, but “we already have the library site, which is close to (OHS), and we try to spread it out more” by having another site at the middle school.
Breakfast at the middle school coincides with summer school, as the school is one of two sites for summer school, Diley said. McKinley Elementary, also a spot for summer school, will have hot lunch Monday-Thursday from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. July 8-Aug. 1 and breakfast those same days and dates from 8 to 8:30 a.m.
No income guidelines apply for any of the summer meals, as food is free for all children ages 1-18. Adults are welcome to join, as well, for $2.30 and $4.05 for breakfast and lunch, respectively.
The district makes every effort to communicate the summer meals program to the community, including passing out flyers in English, Spanish, and Somali, Diley said. “Every year, the word gets spread more and more.”
And participation has grown dramatically in recent years, with Owatonna Public Schools setting a new record for summer meals in 2018, serving more than 16,000 breakfasts and lunches, she said. “It bridges a gap for families” who may rely on schools to provide one or two meals for children during the academic term.
Children are more likely than the general population in America to be food insecure, according to a recent study by Feeding America, a Chicago-based national network of 200 American food banks. Roughly 17% of American youth — or 12.5 million children — contend with food insecurity in the U.S.
In Owatonna’s summer meals program, youth can also embrace healthy choices, with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, Diley said. “Kids are hungry during the summer,” as they are “playing and active.”
The U.S. ranked 43rd in deaths related to poor diet in a recent peer-reviewed Global Burden of Disease analysis. The leading dietary risk factor for death and disease for Americans is a low intake of whole grains, below the suggested 125 grams per day.
Of course, Owatonna Public Schools is hardly the only district to offer summer meals, Diley said. “This is federally-funded,” through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “with programs all over the state and country.”
The district could see another uptick in participation this year for summer meals, as Waseca’s migrant students will be joining Owatonna’s migrant students for meals in 2019, she said. In addition, the district is looking to partner with the city’s department of Parks and Recreation to offer a few meals in conjunction with “Rec on the Go” events, as it would be “great for parents to bring their kids for a meal and some outdoor activities” on a given day.
As was the case last summer, Nutrition Services will attempt one hot meal per week at the library, along with the regular bag lunches, she said. Furthermore, the district will once again offer leftover sandwiches, etc., to the Steele County Food Shelf, as the food shelf’s Meals in Motion van is already used for food transportation in the summer meals program, and “it’s great for us to donate something back.”