It’s almost over and reflecting tonight.

One of my favorite stories is of my parents, Kendall and Carol Ison, when they met in grade school in the fourth grade at Upper Cowan School.  My Mom, the youngest of nine children lived at Scuttle Hole Gap with her mother, Jane Fields who raised the family on $142 a month until she would become one of the first cooks at Cowan Elementary.   Lunches at Upper Cowan School for my Mom and her brothers was often a pail of milk and bread that was kept cold in the creek by the school.  Mom tells the story of being in awe of my Dad when he showed up with his lunch in a brown paper bag, with a bologna sandwich on white bread and a pink snowball cake.   She says she decided right then that she would marry him and be “rich.”  She ends the story by saying, she did marry him, they were never rich, but she did eat a lot of bologna sandwiches and snowball cakes.

Right about this time, in the early 50’s, community members who worked with the school decided ALL CHILDREN needed a healthy lunch.  Not that the milk and bread was not, but not all children had that option.  Some walked home, some teachers took care of, some did not eat.   The members of this community began the first informal meals program at Cowan School, before Cowan Community Center existed.  Before lunches were available as we know them now in schools. Thanks to those strong leaders who saw that need and raised money with pie suppers and square dances students at Cowan School had their first free lunch, before lunches were a part of the school day.  Let’s say a few of their names…Lansford Fields, Jane Fields, Mary Lou Fields, Hazel Rayburn, Helen York, Freda McCool, Ray and Loreva Fields, Anita Day and Deola Day, happy to edit if you can tell me some I don’t know. This group made a kitchen and set up a cafeteria downstairs in the basement of Upper Cowan School.   My aunt, Mary Lou Fields, whom I have thought of many times this summer was one of the first cooks at the school.  She always worried that children have enough food to eat. She had spent many years at the school,  because going to Whitesburg High School wasn’t an option.  She attended 8th grade three times because she could not get to the high school in Whitesburg.  Buses were not there for her to get to Whitesburg High School and it really was not a priority for young girls.  She did get that GED, never stopped learning, including college credit and teaching.  Working and serving her community and family with her last clear thoughts.  Ironically, the 50’s had it’s own little pandemic with an outbreak of Tuberculosis.  I learned from my Mom tonight that Mr. Crase, the Cowan teacher had to come tell Mary Lou and her Mom that she had tested positive for TB.  She immediately had to go to a sanitorium in London, KY.   I feel disloyal sharing this now, 70 years later as if she is “less than” because she had a positive TB test. She was always worried that she might still be a “carrier” and make someone sick.  She used so much Clorox, her hands were always raw.  I wonder what the worries during that time were and how communities reacted.  I wonder what this pandemic will look like 70 years later and what stories we…I mean they…will tell and what stories we will be ashamed to tell.  I wonder.

So, I’m sharing this to say that a Food Service Program is not new to Cowan.  The roots of a community serving meals to children go back to a basement to a school long burned.  Summer camps with bread and bologna charged at Eugene Day’s and later Haggar’s Grocery have fed many students at summer camp.  I imagine your communities have similar stories….find them….record them….share them….take pride and nourishment in them.

Sharing the picture from Cowan School lunch ladies including my aunt, Hazel Rayburn.

So, here we are in a pandemic in 2020.  What can Cowan Community Center do?

We rally with partners and through the USDA Summer Food Service Program we serve over 650,000 meals to youth 18 and below in eight counties.  Over 2,500 families and 5,000 children received meals this summer from May 11th – August 21st.   Cowan Community Center quietly lands a TWO Million dollar USDA SFSP on the old school hill at CANE Kitchen and young folks begin serving meal kits to the younger folks as safely as we can.

Cowan began this journey in 2014 with meals at the Farmers Market. We served 1,400 meals and it felt like the right thing to do.  It set a foundation for work to bring good food and opportunity to all.  Some say justice when they talk about food.  Honest….I don’t really understand what that means yet and certainly don’t think I have a part in making justice happen, but I do my best to see that opportunities are there for all and all are treated with respect and dignity.

This summer has been extremely hard, and I want folks to understand what happened.  Cowan Community Action Group, Inc. was the sponsor for the USDA SFSP.  CANE Kitchen was our primary site and other community partners also distributed if they could.  We wish we could have worked more w/sites, but logistics made it difficult.  A meal distribution program like this has never happened before and was only possible because of the pandemic.  We were able to give meal kits for a week to families. We offered enough food for 7 breakfasts and 7 lunches and more.  This opportunity was a double edge sword, the pandemic made a tremendous amount of help possible, but it made it all so much harder.  The heat was horrible at times for the workers, but masks were ALWAYS required.  I made no friends and became the enemy by constantly enforcing the masks for workers.  I know that masks are a hard issue and it really separates and divides.  I stand by this effort and believe if we are given this opportunity to provide food to families because of a pandemic that our only option is to behave accordingly.  I hope when the heat cools, all recognize there was no choice on this matter and it was for the safety of all.  Thanks to so many of you in the community who wore your masks to show that same level of respect to the workers.   Thanks to those who politely put yours on when asked.

Speaking of community, you all were awesome.  I have no…well,maybe one grouch…. stories of anyone coming to pick up meal kits that was not kind and courteous.  You read our updates and self-regulated with only having huge crowds this last week.  This Monday had two semi-trucks delivered, groceries unloaded, packaged and over 1,600 children served 22,400 meals.  This with only 12 workers that day.  When there was a problem, we got polite messages and inquiries, never blasted on facebook.  Thank you for that respect and opportunity to work out a situation and we made mistakes and had problems to correct.  We know you all wanted more fresh vegetables…..that’s a good thing.

I wonder what the SFSP Team will remember about the summer, of course I will be an unpleasant memory always pushing and reminding of masks, but I do hope the takeaway goes beyond that.  Most of our workers were between 16 and 21, with a few outliers, but the work was hard and required the health and stamina of the young.  I believe the pay was fair.   Cowan Community Action Group, Inc. will have a payroll pushing $200,000 for the summer.  We are pleased to put that back into the community this summer when it is struggling.  I hope the team members felt good when they read the facebook messages, heard  thank you and met with the families.  Although contact was limited, I can’t believe 2,000 families driving thru each week to pick up breakfast and lunch does not have an impact.  I hope I live to hear and see good stories from the experience.  I am most thankful and sincerely thank God that all are healthy.


As our program ends, I want to give some formal appreciation for individuals and organizations that made this possible.

USDA Summer Food Service Program

Division of School and Community Nutrition

Office of Finance and Operations

Kentucky Department of Education

Cathy Gallagher, Program Director

We could not have any better people to work with that the State level.  Prior to beginning this work several years ago, I have felt that “Folks in Frankfort” were not there to help us.  That has not been my experience.  We have only been met with encouragement and support.  When we reached our 100,000 meal so many supporters got special permission and made their way here.  Cathy Gallagher has been wonderful.  Special thanks to Jennifer Smith and Michael Sullivan also for helping with our questions.

Cowan Community Action Group, Inc.

Cowan was the sponsor for this program.  I have strong support from Cowan, but we have procedures and rules for action and as often happens with me, I was pushing the limits.  I remember not sleeping the first few nights and thinking, what have I done?  Did everyone at Cowan really understand the project we were undertaking?  What happens if we fail?  The first order was $25,000 and I remember thinking, well….maybe I can just drive my car an extra five years and I can pay that off if it all goes wrong.  Real thoughts that keep me up.  How relieved I was when the Cowan Community Action Group, Inc. all joined in on a zoom call w/Jennifer Smith, at the Department of Education to learn every detail of the program and all unanimously agreed to take on this challenge and responsibility.  Because it was the right thing to do.  Burdens and worries are lighter when shared.

Nell Fields, President

Pat Yinger, Vice President

Isaac Fields, Treasure

Carol Ison, Secretary


Valerie Horn, Director

Stacy Dollarhide, Administrative Assistant


Special recognition:

Nell Fields who put her name on the line, including her home address to be responsible.

Stacy Dollarhide who handles every invoice and check and made sure that we passed an audit for JUNE this year during all the meal distribution.


CANE Kitchen


This was a perfect fit for CANE Kitchen.   CANE was a wonderful partner and how wonderful it was/is to see the space alive and giving so much to the community.  We stretched and learned a great deal from this experience.  We read about long waits in other communities and the National Guard struggling to make it work.  CANE Kitchen was committed to do this with dignity and respect and lighten the load for families during this time.  We hope you all heard “thank you” and “have a nice day” often.  We know we weren’t perfect….but we do wish that for you.


Mike Caudill, Board Member

Nanette Banks, Board Member

Valerie Horn, Board Member


Brandon Fleming, CANE Kitchen Site Manager making it all happen every day.  Brandon worked tirelessly to make it all work.  Days were long and many challenges and new problems requiring solutions each day.


Cora Sturgill, Compliance Officer, bringing her experience to the table was a tremendous asset for the program.


Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation

MCHC offers this space to CANE at no cost and supported CANE and the responsibilities of being a Summer Food Service Program Site.   We created traffic and disruption, and they were always patient and looked for the good in serving community.

City of Whitesburg Farmers Market

Thanks to our growers for getting fresh produce in as many meals as possible.  Thank you Louise Murtaugh and all of our growers.

Isom IGA

You know how this began?  We asked Gwen Christian, Isom IGA if we could place an order.  I went to her store, sat in the deli w/her supplier, we brain stormed and the order was placed.  By the time we got our first reimbursement, we were over ¼ million in debt to IGA.  Who does that?  People like Gwen Christian at IGA.

UK Dieticians

Thanks to the University of KY for helping with menus.   We got comfortable, but they gave our start and time and attention to the menus.

USDA SFSP Partners

Community Farm Alliance-Still growing our Farmers Market with Farmers Market Support Program, Double Dollars and the first to help us get a SFSP.  Thank you Martin Richards.

Grow Appalachia– Cowan’s 10th year as a Grow Appalachia site.  Growing community one garden at a time.  Thank you David Cooke and Candace Mullins.

Veggie Incentive Program-Sharing the cost of fresh veggies and making local produce purchases more affordable.  Thank you Kate McDonald and Tamara Sandburg.

Kentucky State University-Thank you for our first food booth and support to local growers.  Thank you Joni Nelson.

Letcher County Culture Hub and Site Partners


Campbells Branch Community Center

Lively Hope Park

Neon First Church of God

Carcassone Community Center

Cutshin Bible Church

Gordon Fire Dept.

Sandlick Fire Dept.

Hemphill Community Center

Kingscreek Fire Department



Aiden Adams

Kensley Adams

Jessica Anderson

Noah Anderson

Alandra Baker

Sandara Baker

Chad Bates

Jessica Boggs

Marah Boggs

Ethan Brown

Stephen Burke

Sharon Burton

Jonathan Clayton

Grayson Collier

Ann Leslie Collins

Tionna Collins

Mason Combs

James Coyle

Emily Craft

Mackenzie Craft

Keaston Eldridge

Alyssa Franklin

Olivia Frazier

Luke Goins

Zachary Hall

McKinzie Hall

Abbey Howard

Lucas Howard

Angie Jensen

Julie Kiser

Sara McAuley

Abby Meade

Wolfgang Miles

Kayla Morton

Ellie Mullins

Jacob Nicholas

Debbie Owens

Debbie Sexton

Meggan Smith

Reaghan Spangler

Corey Sparkman

Sean Patrick Stewart

Cora Sturgill

Louann Vermillion

Vickie Wampler

Marissa Webb



So, thank you for reading.  I believe people like to know what is going on and how it happens.  Cowan really wants to partner and we all have to do our best to make things work.  Please join our meetings at Cowan the second Tuesday of each month.


I would like to ask for your help as there are lots of ways we can help our community.


Please…please…..if you have not completed the census, click on the link above and do it NOW.  It is short, simple and will help our community.  It helps in so many ways and there is no risk.



You will be receiving a survey in the email and when it comes, please help us gather results for future work.


That’s really all.  You take care and we will see you soon.



Valerie Horn

Cowan Community Action Group, Inc.