Sack lunches in hand, Linn-Mar teacher Carla Ironside walked out to a car pulled up to the curb outside Squaw Creek Mobile Home Park in Marion. It was one of a steady stream of families driving to pick up lunches provided by a Marion summer lunch distribution program that has seen added demand for lunches this summer.
Quickly recognizing the passengers, Ironside’s eyes — her smile hidden by a mask — lit up as she stopped to chat animatedly with her students through the car window. She hadn’t seen them in a classroom since March, before the novel coronavirus pandemic closed schools.
She handed them each a sack lunch — packed with a sandwich, snack, and drink — and waved as the car drove off.
“It means a lot to me (to see my students). I get to make sure that they’re OK, I get to make sure that they’re fed, and I get to see their smiles,” she said. “It helps me and I think it helps them.”
Ironside is a volunteer for a lunch distribution program in Marion and Cedar Rapids, Feeding Lunches to Youth, that has seen massive demand for lunches this summer amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
At a little under the summer halfway mark, the program deployed 9,354 meals, said program director Simon Campbell. That’s more than the program sometimes does in a whole summer. To kick off the summer, the group collected about 4,000 juice boxes, bags of chips, and fruit snacks donated from a network of local churches and nonprofit organizations such as Hawkeye Area Community Action Program. Normally, that would cover them for close to half the summer. This year, that lasted 11 days.
The program, a network of local churches and nonprofits, delivers lunches primarily to students who qualify for free and reduced lunches to 12 locations in Cedar Rapids, Linn-Mar and Marion Independent school districts throughout the summer months.
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Part of the reason for the added demand, Campbell said, is financial strain on families due to the pandemic.
“Job loss and income reduction are causing a lot of families to rely on organizations like ours to help meet the gap,” Campbell wrote in an email.
More than 11,000 students in the Marion Independent, Cedar Rapids and Linn-Mar school districts qualify for free and reduced lunch, according to Iowa Department of Education statistics.
In addition to added demand, the program also has had to shift its operations to mitigate the spread of coronavirus as they pack lunches at the Marion First United Methodist Church.
About 40 volunteers, socially distanced and masked, work at meal-prepping stations in the lobby of the church. Huge bowls of peanut butter and jelly were scraped almost clean as a rotating group — last week volunteers were from the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection — packages meals.
Lunches are then neatly packed into black bins and hurried by volunteers like Ironside to 12 locations within the Linn-Mar and Marion Independent school districts. Normally, the FLY program asks kids to eat lunches on site in an effort to promote peer mentoring and allow students positive interactions. That type of interaction wasn’t feasible this year, Campbell said. Parents walk or drive to the pickup location.
Grief spurs renewed action
On July 13, FLY board member and Lutheran Church of the Resurrection member Jill Hansen delivered devastating news to volunteers — also members of the Lutheran church — gathered to pack lunches. A beloved volunteer of the FLY program, Tammy Evans, died earlier that day after a yearslong battle with cancer.
“There were a lot of tears shed on Monday,” Hansen said.
Evans always kept helping kids at the forefront of her hefty plate of volunteer work, Hansen said. She was a longtime Sunday school director, sponsored bicycles for children abroad and recruited volunteers for the FLY program when it started in 2007.
Hansen said Evans continued to message Hansen even in the past few months to see how she could coordinate food donations.
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“She wanted to continue to help, even to the end. She never stopped trying to help the kids,” Hansen said.
“She kept apologizing that she couldn’t help out as much this year, and I just said ‘oh stop’.”
In lieu of a memorial, her family asked donations be directed to the FLY program, according to her obituary. Her funeral, which was on Friday, was held the Marion Methodist Church, adjacent to where volunteers pack lunches.
“We’ll celebrate her life, and then go and do what she would have wanted us to do,” Hansen said earlier last week.
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