Wednesday, July 28, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

50 kids and a free lunch


Tell that to Sister Agnes.

Fifty kids were fed lunch on Monday in a little park in Urbandale — for free.

Chew on that.

The small parking lot at Murphy Park fills with a half dozen cars. The green totes and the blue coolers are unloaded from the trunks and carried up to the shelter. The workers gather in a clump. Their hushed conversation seems appropriate in the still summer air. Slowly, everyone takes a spot behind a bin. A cool breeze arrives from the woods, crosses the soccer field and drifts around the adults as they wait for their smart watches to say noon.

Yahoo. Lunch is served.

“Free lunch” is what was promised.

Prep Iowa

Really? This must be a joke. As in “there is no such thing…” I assume it must be a way to sell you life insurance, or to pump up your nonexistent investment portfolio, or for you to buy a retirement home on the floodplain near Gray’s Lake. It has to be a scam of some sort, right?

But there it is, in red, white and blue. Free lunch.

I love lunch, by the way. Yup, I was the guy at my desk for 32 years with a sack lunch and whatever goodie I could pull out of the fridge at the last minute. Although, I must admit that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were the centerpiece of many of my culinary masterpieces. More than one search warrant left my office with grape jelly permanently staining the words “methamphetamine” or “semi-automatic 9 mm weapon.”

And, let’s face it, I charmed my soon-to-be wife over my sack lunches I brought each day to the Iowa Law School clinic.

“What are you eating today?” my future wife would ask while, unbeknownst to me, thinking only 8-year-old kids with Dory the Discoverer on their T-shirt would carry a sack lunch to school.

“A BLT.”


“Yup,” I’d say, “but there’s no bacon, or lettuce, or tomato in it, but there are radishes.”

She’d force a thin smile and then try to figure out how she could transfer to another office with a less weird officemate.

Love at first sight.

And lunches in grade school when growing up? I dream about them. My fellow classmates would complain and stuff their green Jell-O dotted with yellow corn into their milk cartons to escape the scold of Sister Agnes, the looming protector against waste at the tray table. I, on the other hand, would be back in the kitchen trying to charm the older women in hairnets to plop another scoop of stuffing and chicken and gravy onto my plate. Older women in hairnets deserve their own national holiday, in my book.

“We had 50 kids on Monday. There are days we do 30. Every day is different.”

Christy Stroope is animated and friendly and broad-smiled as she stands behind a red bin in the lunch line. Christy is the juvenile court liaison and the family facilitator for outreach at Urbandale Schools.

“In summer, parents are working. And if kids can come out of their houses and into the neighborhood where we can provide them with fruits, a vegetable, a yogurt, then we know they are getting at least one good meal a day.”

Christy’s counterpart at Urbandale Middle School, Abby Schuller, behind a green bin, chimes in:

“With this kind of program, which we share with Johnston Schools, we see a high number of kids who even need breakfast. When families are working, it’s hard to get lunches. We can help alleviate that stress over the summer.”

And the kids come. Older sisters corral their siblings from the swings and slides and hanging bars. Kids flow in from 68th Street, and Roseland Drive and up from Urbandale Avenue. Everyone is seemingly well-mannered, gracious and happy to be there. They line up and are handed their food. It soon disappears with everyone fed. A grand success.

This same scene occurs at dozens of sites around the metro area every Monday through Friday. Funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and from the individual school districts. Des Moines Public Schools have been doing it for more than 30 years and have 21 sites this year alone.

Unfortunately, I’m over the age to qualify for a free lunch. And, at least today, no one has peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And maybe older women with hairnets are a thing of the past now that I’m an old man. And if radish sandwiches were served, even if rebranded as BLTs, the free-lunch program would die an untimely death.

But, for all of us bemoaning politics and climate and the price of corn, 50 kids were fed on Monday. No questions asked.

Tell that to Sister Agnes when you drop off your tray. ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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