The Ecumenical Lord’s Cupboard is hoping to pick up where the school district left off one week ago.
Yvonne Johnson, director of food service for the district, said the school year ended with 62 percent of enrolled students qualifying for free or reduced meals.
But when school’s out, those meals disappear.
Jessica Milner, director of the Lord’s Cupboard, said they will begin their first-ever food program this summer for families whose children lack access to meals once school is out.
“It’s gone up in recent years,” Johnson said of the number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. “It’s never gone down, let’s put it that way. It’s either sustained or increased.”
Milner said additional food items, such as cereal, ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, crackers and cookies, will be given to qualifying families with children.
“They’re easy things that kids like and are simple to fix,” Milner said. “If they’re home by themselves, it’s not too difficult to fix.”
Milner said the Lord’s Cupboard tries to give out a week’s worth of food at a time to those who come in, and this new program will be in addition to that.
In March, they saw 500 people, 160 of whom were under the age of 18. That number grew in April, with the cupboard seeing 525 people, 165 of whom were under the age of 18.
“The numbers are growing. Overall we’re seeing an increase from year to year,” Milner said. “I think part of it’s the economy, people are having trouble finding jobs.”
Despite Iowa Workforce Development statistics that show the unemployment rate is steadily dropping month to month statewide, Milner said that falling rate doesn’t parallel what she’s seeing at the Lord’s Cupboard.
“A lot of people have simply stopped filing for unemployment or their benefits ran out,” she said.
Johnson also predicted the growing numbers reflect the job market and struggling economy.
“But there’s lots of factors that go into that,” Johnson said, such as the USDA’s income guidelines for free or reduced lunch eligibility.
Last year was the first year the USDA did not increase the cost of living, which they normally do, Johnson said.
“So people who got a cost of living increase at their employment may have qualified for free or reduced because the guidelines themselves didn’t change,” she said. “But this year, they will go up.”
While there are other area agencies who provide food assistance, such as the Salvation Army and the Food Bank of Southern Iowa, Milner said she’s unaware of a center that provides breakfast, which is why the cupboard’s new program will be giving out items like breakfast cereal.
And she expects a lot of families will participate in the new program.
“Our busiest months are July and August because school is out,” Milner said. “But I think June will be bigger this year because kids are out of school already. I think we’ll see an increase in June versus what we saw last year.”
Hunger is a problem that’s not receding in southeast Iowa, Milner said.
“It’s getting worse for the amount of people I’m seeing and the frequency that they’re coming in,” Milner said. “In the area, I see a lot of people who are unemployed, a lot of people on limited income like SSI [Supplemental Security Income] and food stamps, and I also see a lot of people moving back in with their parents.”
This follows the trend of recent college graduates struggling to find work, as 53 percent — 1.5 million — of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 were unemployed or underemployed last year, according to an analysis by Northeastern University.
“I started here in 2008 and didn’t see a lot of parents and adult children,” Milner said. “But now they’re moving in with somebody else who at least has some sort of income, though it may not be enough to support everybody in the house.”
The Lord’s Cupboard’s new program was made possible by a recent $10,000 grant from the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation.
The school district’s food service department also serves the emergency shelter, Seton Catholic School and the Gateway Treatment Center.
The Lord's Cupboard
The Lord’s Cupboard is open noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday at First United Methodist Church, 202 E. Fourth St. Those coming in for food must be at the center before 2:45 p.m.
The summer food program will begin in mid-June.
Participants must have a referral from the Southern Iowa Economic Development Association (SIEDA), as they must with all other programs.