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Fewer area youth to go hungry this summer thanks to student, faculty community project

More Eau Claire elementary-age youth will have access to food this summer thanks to a team of Honors students and a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Working with several community organizations, the university team is leading a project that will make it possible for young people with food insecurity issues to access Feed My People Food Bank's Weekend Kids' Meals at more locations in Eau Claire, including at four city playgrounds and the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library.

"During the school year, Feed My People sends meals home with more than 1,600 Eau Claire elementary school students every week," said Nathan Schaffer, a junior geography and economics major who is helping to lead the project. "But when school is out, just 1,600 meals are distributed to kids during the entire summer. That means many of the kids who need the food are going without it during the summer months."

With all but one Eau Claire elementary school participating in the weekend meals program, the schools serve as a distribution hub during the school year, said Dr. Garry Running, a professor of geography who teaches in the university Honors Program. Teachers, principals and staff at the schools know which students are food insecure and work hard to help them overcome hunger issues, he said.

But when schools close for the summer, it's much harder to get food into the hands of those kids who need it, said Running, who learned about the summer challenges while touring Feed My People with an Honors civic engagement class taught by Dr. Ruth Cronje, professor of English.

"When I heard about the summer issue my first thought was that I'm a geographer so I can help them find where the kids are during the summer," Running said. "But it turns out the issue isn't that simple. Lots of people know where the kids are, but the problem was the logistics of trying to actually get the meals to the kids when school is out. There was no good replacement location for distributing the meals when schools were closed."

Running asked students in the civic engagement class if they would help him identify summer locations to distribute the food and a way to get young people to those locations so they could pick up the meals.

Schaffer, an Eau Claire native, immediately signed on to the project.

"I've done a lot of work with elementary-age kids over the years as a volunteer with different youth organizations," said Schaffer. "I've been in homes with families in this community that are in need so I connected to this project on a very personal level. I saw this as a way to use the skills I'm learning in my classes to really help these kids and families."

Running, Schaffer and Corrin Turkowitch, a geography major from Wauwatosa, served as project leaders. Other Honors students also contributed to the project.

Through research, interviews and a series of meetings with various community groups, the university team determined that city playgrounds that host summer programs and the public library attract many of the same youth that need the weekend meals, Schaffer said.

"We pulled people together from those groups to talk about the meals program, and everyone was on board," Schaffer said. "Starting this summer, the weekend meals will be available at the library and at four city playgrounds that host summer youth programs."

Free city bus service to the library already is available to youth during the summer, Schaffer said. He's now working with Eau Claire Transit and the city's Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department to ensure that free bus service also will be available to bring kids to the playgrounds that will distribute the meals, he said.

In past summers, Feed My People delivered meals to summer school locations, the Boys and Girls Club, The Community Table and the Wisconsin Youth Success Program at UW-Eau Claire, said Suzanne Becker, assistant director of Feed My People Food Bank.

"We delivered meals to those sites, but we only reached a fraction of the kids we serve during the school year," Becker said. "We are unsure what the increase will be by adding the playgrounds and library sites to our program, but we hope it will be significant."

Youth registering for the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department's River City Adventures summer program can receive the Kids Weekend Meals at four playgrounds throughout the city, said Dawn Comte, superintendent of recreation for the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department. The playgrounds that will serve as distribution sites are Sam Davey Elementary School, Flynn Elementary School, Roosevelt Elementary School and Mitscher Neighborhood Park.

"Our goal is to get these meals out to the kids who need them so our staff will work through any issues that might come up with the families," Comte said. "We're excited to add another level of service to our programs and help get needed resources out to kids in our community."

Becker said she is grateful to Running and the students for their vision for the program as well as their hard work to turn the vision into a reality.

"Childhood hunger is a critical issue right here in our community," Becker said. "By partnering with UW-Eau Claire and other community organizations we can make a difference in the lives of these kids. We expect that this summer program will generate great results for our kids."

With the program in place, the team now is working with area schools and community groups to help get the word out to families about the new summer meal locations, Schaffer said.

"We're really trying to push this so people know about it," Schaffer said. "Our hope is to get meals to hundreds more kids each week during the summer."

Comte said she expects up to 250 youth in kindergarten through fifth grade to register for playground programs, a significant number of whom have food insecurity issues.

The city has long offered programs at the playgrounds but this year is partnering with the Eau Claire Area School District to make the playground programs more instructional, Comte said.

"We want kids to learn to be healthy by being active and by having fun," Comte said. "The weekend meals program adds an important nutritional component to our program."

The project demonstrates the positive impact university students can have on the Eau Claire community, said Schaffer, who plans to coordinate the summer meals program until he graduates.

"Students have so much energy and so many ideas," said Schaffer, who hopes to one day work in the field of economic development or city planning. "There is so much potential for students to do great things in this community. And there are many faculty here who support students who have ideas and want to do these kinds of projects."

For more information, contact Dr. Garry Running at 715-836-2731 or