By: Jessica Beckman, UWSC Volunteer
It was a warm and bustling day at the Owatonna library. The parking lot was packed, except for a few spots scattered around. A truck with the words FRED plastered on the front pulled into the back corner of the parking lot. It was 11:30, just 15 minutes before they would open up. Sam stepped out of the truck and with her fellow staff members, began setting the food items for the lunch that day. The lunch spread was good, made up of sandwiches, assorted fruits and veggies, and milk cartons; a balanced meal. After the lunch was set out, Sam made her way inside.
Sam walked in and saw a librarian was sprawled out on the floor with kids listening intently to her story, as it was story telling day at the library. Once Sam came in and made the announcement that lunch was ready, kids began gathering their things and rushed out the library doors to where they were serving the lunches. The librarians tried in vain to get the kids to walk on the side walk, but they were too excited at the thought of fresh food. The kids lined up where the grass and sidewalk meet, waiting patiently to be served. Sam pulled on her gloves and let the first child through.
Sam isn’t a real person, but the children and stories you are reading about are a representation of the children using these services and some of the realities they face. FRED, also known as Food Resources Education Delivery, arrives at 11:30 in order to prepare for lunch at the Owatonna library. Lunch runs from 11:45 to 12:15, Monday through Thursday, with a different lunch every day of the week (See menu at the bottom of the article). The number of youth served varies. This particular Tuesday was much busier than other days, because of daycares and other kids at the library for story-time. The number of children will no doubt shift as the summer continues. This mobile service is the newest in a series of programs aimed at making sure children in Owatonna have sources of good nutrition. Other sites include the Owatonna High School, Wilson Elementary School, and the Owatonna Junior High School. This new service differs from the food services in the school because they offer other foods which can be more easily transported, allowing better access to nutritious foods.
The first child in line was a young boy who looked to be around 13 or 14, carrying a skate board. Sam hadn’t seen him there before. It’s possible he heard about the lunches from a friend and came by that afternoon to see what it was about. He walked up and took a sandwich out of the bin and looked up at Sam. The boy asked her, “can I take this with me, or do I need to eat it here?” This wasn’t really an unusual question, especially for kids his age. Sam answered him honestly, “People served are supposed to eat the lunches that they get here, but are allowed to take one uneaten item with them. You only have the sandwich so you can go, but we would love if you stayed here and ate with everyone.” The boy walked over to the back of the lawn and sat down by some other kids his age.
Older children hanging out nearby, interested by the kids lining up, were only a few of the people who came by to eat lunch today. Some were children who use the library to hang out and see friends. Some were kids who walked there on their own; while others were parents and grandparents who walked with them. Lunches are free for kids 18 and under, but adults can buy a lunch for $3.85. A few adults bought lunches, but the majority were children. That day there were also a lot of toddlers there with their daycares. One of those toddlers was the next in line.
A little girl, no older than 6, walked up to the table. She looked up at Sam, who towered over her. The little girl hid behind the legs of the woman with her. The woman was most likely her daycare provider, since she had several other little ones following close behind. She looked down at the little girl and shrugged, took one of the lunch boats off the stack and grabbed a sandwich for the little girl. She grabbed a handful of cucumbers and moved to grab a plum as well. The little girl looked up at her daycare provider and whispered, “Can I have more cucumbers, please?” Sam laughed, “Take as many cucumber slices as you want, they’re good for you.” The little girl got on her tiptoes and grabbed another big handful of cucumbers. She put them in the tray and moved to grab another, “Alright I think that’s probably enough,” her daycare provider said. She shuffled the little girl through the line, towing 6 other little ones behind her.
Things moved at that pace all afternoon. About 15 minutes in, the truck had to run back to Wilson Elementary and pick up more sandwiches. They ended up running out of food once again and turned away 15 or 20 kids, advising them to walk over to the high school to get lunch there. Sam packed up the leftover veggies and milk into the truck and got ready to leave. As she was getting into the truck, the librarian reading to the kids earlier walked over to her, “I just wanted to thank you again for the lunches. Many of the youth here use us as a kind of daycare service, and we become trusted adults in the process. Many children tell me these meals are the first thing they’ve eaten that day.” Sam smiled, “we’re more than happy to help.”
Sam climbed into the truck, joining the other staff member inside. On this day, 92 children got a well-balanced meal they may have not otherwise have received. This meal was provided because of the work and organization of the United Way and their generous partner organizations. This includes the Owatonna Food Shelf, the Owatonna Hospital, the University of Minnesota Extension, and the Owatonna School District. The Owatonna School district has been offering meals like these during the summer for several years to ensure all area youth have adequate nutrition. Many of us see the beautiful facilities Owatonna has to offer and forget the more urgent needs present in our community. In this case, the need is hunger and a lack of reliable food sources. The number of students who rely on the schools during the year and these programs during the summer show that big beautiful school facilities hide the true needs of the city. This number only touches on hungry children. These kids represent families who are struggling and need our communities support. By supporting the United Way and their many partners you can directly help the families in Owatonna who need it most.
Owatonna High School Class of 2016 graduate, Jessica Beckman, is currently a sophomore at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Her parents are Mike and Sheila Beckman. She is majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in Music and Japanese Studies. When she graduates she hopes to become a full-fledged novelist someday. This summer Jessica is working at River Springs Water Park and volunteering with United Way of Steele County.