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Supporting Great Plains United Methodist Health Ministry

Summer Food Program: a Hub of Healthy Nutrition and Community Engagement

Summer Food Program LogoThe Healthy Congregations Program, which encourages and supports intentional health ministry in Great Plains UMCs, also offers special grant opportunities to participants. One of these opportunities is funding for Healthy Congregations churches wanting to begin or expand summer food programs. The below is a summary of the accomplishments, and learnings, reported by five churches participating in 2016. To learn more about how your church can take advantage of this opportunity to improve the lives of children and families in your community, visit the SFSP grant page and consider joining us at the free 2017 Healthy Congregations Retreat in April where you can hear from representatives of several of the below churches about their experiences.

Hiawatha United Methodist Church has supported the SFSP for several years, and in 2016 what originally presented as a challenge became an unexpected opportunity.  When the program was forced to move due to a school remodel, the community came together and helped the program establish new space in the community room at the more centrally located law enforcement building.  The Brown County Commission approved funding for a refrigerator and deep freeze, and Hiawatha UMC used their special grant funds to purchase a commercial sink and kitchen supplies to make the space usable.  Thirteen church members, along with forty volunteers from the community, worked together and not only overcame the challenges of moving program operations but found that the new location delivered a serendipitous side benefit – helping youth and parents relate to law enforcement in a very positive situation.  As is unfortunately common, youth and their parents often interact with law enforcement officials only during very stressful and negative situations.  Bringing youth and law enforcement together in this very positive and relaxed context has benefited both and fostered increased understanding and respect.

The Hiawatha program in 2016 delivered 2,979 first lunches, 533 second lunches, and separate from the program also provided 464 adult meals.  Knowing that a great place to find kids in summertime is at the pool, Hiawatha UMC established a satellite site there and provided 4,227 healthy pool snacks – helping to both improve nutrition and support healthy physical activity over the summer break.

Howard United Methodist Church (KS) oversaw the Howard Childhood Nutrition Program, partnering with community members and other churches including Howard First Baptist Church, Moline United Methodist Church, and the Fundamental Baptist Church.  Mobilizing a team of 25 volunteers, including 12 from Howard UMC, the program fed an average of 35 children per week over six weeks – providing a total of 203 meals over the summer. 

To encourage participation, and to support healthy physical activity as well as nutrition, the program gave pool passes to children each Monday, and organized a bicycle prize giveaway.  Howard UMC purchased a bicycle and two helmets, and the local food bank donated a bicycle as well.  The program also hired a dietitian to talk with the children each week about ways they can make healthy choices when deciding what to eat, and worked with the local library and 4-H agent to include many fun and educational activities in conjunction with the food program.  Howard UMC anticipates continuing the program, and has included it in their five-year plan.

Holdrege First United Methodist Church (NE) in 2016 started their Backpack Blessings summer food program in partnership with Holdrege First Presbyterian Church and with financial support from the SFSP grant.  Food packs were prepared and filled by a team of four First Presbyterian volunteers for delivery throughout June and July.  Working in partnership with the local YMCA’s summer lunch program, a team of eight volunteers – four each from First UMC and First Presbyterian – handed out the food packs to children, and through the summer a total of 211 packs were delivered to community children.  Another 72 packs were left over at the program’s conclusion on July 29 and those were delivered to children participating in the school-year food backpack program.  Backpack Blessings learned some things along the way – one of the challenges was anticipating demand each week.  From week to week over a little more than two months, the number of packs delivered ranged from 9 to 69, but the program learned to adapt to quickly changing needs. Backpack Blessings exemplifies the compassion and generosity of the Holdrege community demonstrated through strong support from volunteers, local churches, and businesses.

LaCygne United Methodist Church (NE) had been part of the 2015 start-up of a community Summer Food Service Program sponsored by the LaCygne Library, with the UMC administrative board and members involved in initial planning stages, start-up, and operations.  In 2016, LaCygne UMC expanded their participation in the program with additional volunteers and monetary support from the SFSP grant.  The congregation has also recruited other community churches, organizations, and individuals to volunteer for at least one week at the meal site during the summer, strengthening partnerships and collaboration.

For 2016, the program was expanded from six to 12 weeks and instead of the previous shelf-stable meals, hot meals were served to children and youth visiting the library.  Church volunteers assisted with meal preparation and delivery, provided games and fun activities for the children, and read to participants.  Each week, LaCygne volunteers provided “Fitness Thursdays” for summer meal program participants – offering physical activities, games, and items that children and youth could take with them and use to continue exercise and games at home.

Over 11 weeks, 1,050 hot meals were served to children and youth at LaCygne Library through the help of a total of 143 community volunteers.  As the program wrapped up for the summer of 2016, a final Pool Party was organized for Summer Meals participants to celebrate. 

Wilson United Methodist Church (KS) is a seasoned veteran of the program, having sponsored a Summer Lunch Program for six years.  With the help of the SFSP grant, for 2016 Wilson UMC expanded the program to include fruits and vegetables provided at the end of each week as a food supplement for the weekend.  With five Wilson UMC volunteers and six volunteers from other churches and the community at large, the program served an average of 45 children each week over its 10-week period – and learned some interesting things along the way.  Approximately half of the children participating did not recognize some of the fruits (honeydew melons and whole strawberries) and vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, and snow peas) offered, so each week the program made available a plate with a different item to try – and most of the children gave a thumbs-up.  Volunteers were pleasantly surprised that no children refused to take home any of the fruits and vegetables. 

Through the program, children could experience grocery shopping each Thursday from the tables named “Super Kids Super Store.” Every other Wednesday the kids could shop for age-appropriate free story books (purchased via another grant from First Books).  Two tables were set up, one for ages 1-6 and one for ages 7-18.  One of the more humorous lessons learned by volunteers (and which many adults can appreciate as well) was that children actually will eat any vegetable – provided they can dip it in fat-free Ranch dressing!