Three-year-old AnnaLee washes down a nutritious serving of fish fillet with chocolate milk, food provided by New Opportunities&rsquo; participation in a statewide food service program. Her mom, Shawne Wittrock, 26, watches.&nbsp; <span style="font-size: xx-small;"><em>Daily Times Herald photo by Elyssa Cherney</em></span>
Three-year-old AnnaLee washes down a nutritious serving of fish fillet with chocolate milk, food provided by New Opportunities’ participation in a statewide food service program. Her mom, Shawne Wittrock, 26, watches.  Daily Times Herald photo by Elyssa Cherney
Wednesday, August 1, 2012

At Graham Park, healthy goodness is dished out by the spoonful twice a week.

And on Tuesday, it came by the skewer.

Fruit kabobs stacked high with succulent cantaloupe, pineapple, strawberries and grapes were the first of many tropical treats served at a luau party — a final installment in a new series that staves off summer hunger by providing free meals to Carroll-area families.

Carroll kids built up their appetites tumbling under a multicolored tarp, stringing Cheerios onto a yarn bracelet or playing water limbo before they lined up, cafeteria-style for the event’s main attraction: crispy fish filet served with a warm biscuit, creamy cottage cheese and fresh fruit.

Each Tuesday and Thursday the New Opportunities’ Family Development Center doles out nutritious portions to families in need — and ones that show up. It is just one of 230 food-service sites across the state that have partnered with U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Iowa Department of Education in their Summer Food Service Program.

The program seeks to instill healthful eating habits at a young age by incorporating all the elements of a well-balanced meal — that’s ¾ a cup of fruit or veggies, a carbohydrate and lean source of protein.

“They get a healthy snack, they get a healthy meal and then they get to socialize with other kids their age,” said Magen Fineran, 27, who brings her 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter most days.

Mornings kick off with a snack at 10 a.m., followed by entertainment from various volunteers, like a zumba workout or a visit from the Fire Department, before the lunch time frenzy commences at 11 a.m.

Tuesday’s Hawaiian-themed extravaganza was the culmination of the program’s first trial in Carroll, celebrating a successful start that served 292 lunches and 188 snacks in June alone. Figures for July were not available.

The Summer Food Service Program was first launched by the USDA in 1968 as part of a larger pilot program. By 2009, it grew to reach more than 2.2 million children nationwide. The Department of Education administers the program in Iowa where schools generally host the initiative. When none in Carroll offered, New Opportunities applied to offer the program for the first time this year.

The biweekly meals are available at no charge to families of all income levels. And thanks to a $2,500 grant from the state, parents can also dine for free with their kids.

Still, attendance has been a struggle, said Shawna Leonard, coordinator of the Family Development Center. The turnout has fluctuated over the past two months, drawing as many as 70 people and as few as 10 to individual sessions.

“For its first year, it’s been really good,” she said. “Some of those less-attended days it was kind of a bummer, but you can’t expect a whole lot when it’s a first year running and we’re still learning about how to advertise better.”

Leonard orders about $395 worth of catered food from Hy-Vee twice a week at a rate of about $3.95 per meal. With the help of volunteers, she dispenses it at the park every Tuesday and Thursday. The USDA reimburses up to $3.38 for meals and 78 cents for snacks for children 18 and younger.

In the summer, only about 15,000 students continue to receive that aid, according to 2011 statistics from the Iowa Department of Education.

Since its implementation, the Summer Food Service Program has increased its food sites by 54 percent, but the campaign is still vastly underutilized and reaches only about 7 percent of the population eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Even in Carroll, it is uncertain whether help is reaching those most in need. Since the Carroll program is registered as an “open site,” food is available to people of all income levels. Leonard is prohibited from asking patrons about their economic circumstances and has no way to track who the food assists, she said.

If nothing else, the program has altered the lives of the Janssen children in a profound way: introducing them to sweet potato fries.

And for their mom, Aimee, it’s two fewer meals to prepare for her eight children, all under the age of 12.

“I know that since we’re eating here twice a week we can buy more fresh fruit at the store,” she said. “And it helps with my sanity too. Just to feel like I’m better mom that I have a little bit of a break and they are not being served things that are not healthy.”

Thursday’s final session promises fish tacos to families who wish to catch the program one last time before it wraps up for the summer. Snack is served at 10 a.m. and lunch starting at 11 a.m. with programming in-between.