Valuable school programs keep hungry children fed

Every day, more than a quarter of Central Oregon’s children under age 18 run the very real risk of not having enough to eat, according to Feeding America, a top domestic hunger-relief charity in the U.S. That’s somewhat above the national average and perhaps not surprising given that income in these parts tends to be below the national average.

The kids are what the experts call “food insecure.” They may not be hungry today, but they do not have consistent access to nutritious, affordable and culturally appropriate food, according to Lesley Nelson, a child hunger prevention manager for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. They may not know they’re food insecure — adults are probably reluctant to share such information — but their parents surely do.

Summer has the potential for being the worst season for childhood food insecurity, it seems to me. With school out, free and reduced-price lunches and breakfasts may no longer be available five days a week. Compounding the problem, parents whose food money does not include those meals for kids during the school year must stretch scarce dollars over more people in the summer months.

That’s where Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and local organizations step into the picture. They work together to assure that as many kids as possible can get the food they need even when school is out.

In Central Oregon, that means that lunches are being served at 15 sites in Deschutes County, six in Jefferson County and one in Crook County. Many of those sites serve breakfast, as well. Some sites are at schools, others at local parks, churches and Boys & Girls Clubs.

In the end, the programs are a good deal for the school districts and other sponsoring agencies. As Nelson points out, they do have to spend money up front on the meals they provide, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the nationwide program, reimburses them for their costs. Sponsors receive $3.27 per meal served, enough to cover food purchases, preparation and transportation.

The program is open to all children up to age 18, and there’s no means testing done — if you’re the proper age and you show up, you’re entitled to eat. And while parents are encouraged to attend with their kids, they may not eat off their children’s plates. This is a program aimed strictly at kids.

It’s aimed so strictly at children, in fact, that uneaten food is simply thrown away. Kids may not take it home, in part because of concern over food safety, Nelson says. In fact, that makes its own sort of sense if you think about it. Nothing would drive kids and their parents away more quickly than an E.coli outbreak.

Nelson says she expects about 2 million meals to be served in Oregon this summer, up a bit from last year and nearly the same number served in 2011. Last year’s dip came not because of cuts to the program or the money available to sponsors, but, she suspects, because school district budgets were in such disarray that some cut summer school programs. She notes that such programs are particularly good at drawing youngsters in.

Meanwhile, Bend-La Pine Schools sponsors summer programs at parks and schools in Bend and La Pine, nine sites in total. The Bend programs are up and running, and the one in La Pine begins Monday.

At five of the sites — those at Al Moody, Harmon, Orchard and Pilot Butte Neighborhood parks in Bend and Finley Butte Park in La Pine — the meal program will be incorporated with a summer reading program that’s strictly recreational, though there will be adults available to encourage and coach students who need help.

It’s difficult to square the number of food insecure children in this country with the fact that we’re among the largest food producers in the world, just behind China and India, though our population is far smaller than either of those. And we’re the single largest exporter of food in the world, though the 27 members of the European Union, collectively, do export more.

Yet more than 13,000 children in the tri-county area are considered food insecure, according to Feeding America. Without the summer breakfast and lunch programs, at least some of those kids would be downright hungry this summer.

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