Data often is open for interpretation.
Take the news this week that the summer lunch programs through United Way agencies in Whiteside and Lee counties served fewer children in 2018 than in years past.
In Whiteside County, the Let’s Feed Our Children program served 30,169 meals this summer. That’s down from the 31,665 meals served in 2017.
In Lee County, the Serving Up Summer program served 482 meals over 12 weeks. Last year, 696 meals were served over 28 days.
Both programs ended Aug. 17.
The drop was significant in Lee County, not as much in Whiteside County. Is this good news, or should it be a concern?
The optimist might say that the drop in the number of lunches being served is a positive sign; that the improving economy has resulted in fewer needy families and children in the Sauk Valley. After all, the national economic news continues to be good. Friday’s monthly jobs report showed the pace of hiring quickening in the U.S., and wages grew at their fastest pace in 9 years.
The realist, however, would discount a connection between good national economic news and fewer children in the Sauk Valley taking free lunches through the United Way programs. After all, the economy has been steadily improving for a decade, while the number of people in need locally has grown.
Just a week ago, in the Sept. 1 edition of SV Weekend, we published a story about the number of students receiving free and reduced lunches in the Sauk Valley.
The three larger districts have an average 55.8 percent of students on free and/or reduced lunch programs, with the Sterling School District at 62 percent, Dixon School District at 52.5 percent, and Rock Falls High School at 53 percent.
Clearly, there’s a need in the schools that isn’t subsiding. So, it would stand to reason that the drop in summer lunches served by the United Way program isn’t because there are fewer needy children in the Sauk Valley.
It is likely something else. Perhaps the locations need to be changed? Perhaps finding ways to get meals to the kids, instead of having the kids come to the meals, would help. Maybe more parents in the Sauk Valley are working, but the kids are home alone or with a babysitter who can’t get them to where the program dispenses the meals.
All of these possibilities, we’re sure, are being discussed by the United Way folks in Lee and Whiteside counties. In fact, as we reported this week, the United Way will discuss how to improve next summer’s turnout during a Chamber of Commerce Lunch and Learn session at noon Oct. 17 at the Post House Community Center in Dixon.
The summer lunch programs provided by the United Way are important to our communities’ well-being. The data received from this summer’s efforts is concerning. But it’s an opportunity for those providing the services to figure out better ways to reach the kids and families in need.
That’s the way optimists would look at negative news.