PORTLAND — SnowCap Community Charities used to receive much of its food pantry supply from school food drives. Now it sends more food to schools than it takes in.
Lynch Meadows Elementary School in east Portland used to hold canned food drives. Administrators stopped when they realized kids were donating food from their parents’ cupboards, and parents were picking it up again at SnowCap.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, the number of Lynch Meadows students from low-income families has climbed from half to 83 percent of its 500 kids. At SnowCap, east Multnomah County’s leading charity, food pantry visitors doubled, from 4,000 per month to 8,000.
That’s just a snapshot of the persistently increasing need schools and charities everywhere have seen over the past four years — a need they have struggled, and sometimes failed, to meet.
Statewide, the Oregon Food Bank Network’s food box distribution has jumped 41 percent since 2008. Last year, the network gave out more than a million food boxes; on average 92,000 kids eat from those boxes each month. More than half the state’s students are now poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized meals.
In the face of more poverty and fewer resources, schools have become hubs for charitable programs, where churches, government agencies and charities deliver donations and services directly to children. Organizations are more aggressively trying to reach children and their needy families who don’t otherwise receive help because of lack of transportation, instability at home or other problems.
But that creates a sharp learning curve for both schools and charities as they try to figure out how to distribute food to homes.
“We’ve always had people come to us,” said Judy Alley, executive director of SnowCap for 22 years. But in the past two years, Alley said, the charity has been trying to take food to the people — a huge logistical change.
“We’re still transitioning,” she said.
And SnowCap and other organizations are struggling. More kids than ever are on free and reduced-price lunches. In the ’90s, less than a third of the state’s students ate federally subsidized lunches, according to the Oregon Department of Education. That climbed to 41 percent by 2003, and hovered there until 2007. In 2008, it jumped to 47 percent, and has since reached 53 percent.
December was the last month SnowCap provided food boxes to 40 families at high-poverty Centennial School District elementary schools — Lynch Meadows, Lynch Wood, Parklane and Oliver.
“Many kids in our district, when they come to school it’s the only meal they might get that day,” said Rusty Simms, SnowCap board member and Centennial Learning Center teacher. “Food boxes helped to alleviate the need a little bit.”
His middle schoolers put together the food boxes that off-duty bus drivers delivered to schools. One Friday each month, kids took the food home.
But during the seven-month effort, schools failed to return the receipts SnowCap uses to track its inventory, a requirement for U.S. Department of Agriculture support.
School officials admit they didn’t prioritize the receipts. But they also worked hard to get the food home with kids — stuffed backpacks with food, sent the box with a friend of the family, or had counselors drop it off at homes.
They tried to feed bellies, but their key mission is feeding minds.
“It’s a moral dilemma,” said Laura Fendall, Lynch Meadows principal. “We focus on what we’re experts at.”
Ben Egbers, Oliver Elementary principal, says he daily grapples with providing both education and basic needs for his students.
Oliver is a long-time Title 1 school that receives federal funding for its high rate of low-income families, about 85 percent. The Oregon Department of Education also has labeled it a priority school, meaning it ranks among the bottom 5 percent of Title 1 schools for academic achievement.
“I know my focus needs to be on improving student learning,” Egbers said. “I know there are more basic needs to be filled.”
The food bank survey released in October found the poor are getting poorer: Nearly two-thirds of respondents said their monthly income has dropped over the past two years, and 74 percent reported income below the federal poverty line.
Programs such as Multnomah County’s Students Uniting Neighborhood program, or SUN, address some of that need, providing social services as well as academic programs in high-poverty schools. All four Centennial elementaries are SUN schools.
But principals say the food boxes provided an extra boost to needy families.
“One of the greatest gifts you can give kids is predictability,” Egbers said. “Food boxes were a constant.”
But so were problems. In the midst of its transition, SnowCap faces a $75,000 budget shortfall — the cost of trying to deliver rather simply supply food.
“I feel like we’re losing ground,” said Alley. “We’re trying to make the world a better place, and I feel like our best efforts aren’t sufficient.”
Simms is frustrated the schools’ food box program didn’t work out.
“What I have seen in the past four years is chronic need,” he said. “I see people’s families from school at SnowCap. I see former students of mine at SnowCap for help. It breaks my heart.”