Thursday, May 13, 2021

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Securing the food insecure


Thank God it’s Monday morning

East High’s north and west entrances are now breakfast points, thanks to Sergeant Lori Neely, the Des Moines Police Department and a team of volunteers. Photo submitted.

East High’s north and west entrances are now breakfast points, thanks to Sergeant Lori Neely, the Des Moines Police Department and a team of volunteers. Photo submitted.

What’s up at East High School on Monday mornings? That’s what onlookers are wondering while witnessing the school parking lot packed with police cars.

It’s not a bird and it’s not a plane, but it is Des Moines Police Department Sgt. Lori Neely and her Fuel Up First Program. Neely and her team of volunteers are serving students breakfast from 6:30-7:30 a.m. every Monday morning that the school is in session. The breakfasts include burritos, sandwiches, egg casseroles, Northern Lights breakfast pizza and milk from Anderson Erickson Dairy — depending on the day of the month.

In the beginning, Nealy and friends served about 60 students. That number quickly grew to 100, and they now serve more than 800.

“We run out of food every Monday,” Neely says, adding that 841 students were served on a recent Monday morning.

Prep Iowa

This program came about when the DMPD assessed arrest data and observed an unexpectedly high arrest rate of juveniles aged 14-17 on Monday mornings before lunch. Studies have shown that “food insecure” students are prone to behavior problems, including fighting, aggression and bullying. The thinking behind the Fuel Up First Program is that an empty stomach saps a student’s motivation and energy and makes them a little less likely to care about sitting in class and a little more likely to get in trouble while missing it.

East High was tabbed for the breakfast as a result of it being the largest school in the state (2,400), and because of its high poverty and diversity rates, as well as its low graduation rate.

The annual household income of the families in the areas surrounding East is $20,800, according to information released by the DMPD. That number is $47,096 for Des Moines at large. About 73 percent of Des Moines Public School students are on a free or reduced rate lunch program — according to Central Iowa OpportUNITY Plan.

Neely says The Salvation Army, Des Moines Police Department, East High School, Polk County Supervisors and Community Housing Initiatives have all helped out, and city council member Linda Westergaard has been a regular volunteer as well.

“Linda Westergaard has done such a good job,” Neely says.

“We wanted to change the situation,” Westergaard says. “And we decided to start at East High School.”

Previously, Monday was the most skipped day of the week at East High. But Neely says school attendance on Mondays is now improved. While juvenile arrests haven’t plummeted, they haven’t worsened either. Neely reports one less arrest than the previous year.

But Neely says the program has brought about something that can’t be measured numerically and something she hasn’t seen in her 23 years on the force.

“Instead of them looking at us as an adversary, now they look at us as a resource,” she says.

What’s up at East High School? It’s not a bird or a plane, and it’s not the number of juvenile arrests, either. The one thing that is up? Monday morning attendance.

If you are interested in assisting Neely with volunteer service or with a monetary donation, she can be reached via email at ♦



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