Many Central Oregon students who need free meals miss out in summer

Summer meal participation down in Crook County, climbing in Deschutes and Jefferson

By Megan Kehoe / The Bulletin

Published Jun 7, 2014 at 12:01AM

On the Web

See a list of summer meal sites in the three counties at www.summerfoodoregon.org

Many Central Oregon students who eat free or reduced-price meals during the school year may be going hungry during the summer, even though free lunches are available in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties.

“We know the need is there, and it always makes us wonder where these kids are eating in the summertime,” said Lesley Nelson, child hunger-prevention manager with nonprofit Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. “In a perfect world, they would be at home eating with their parents. But we know that’s not the case. Certainly more kids could be eating — they’re just not.”

The nationwide summer meals program, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, offers free lunches for any child younger than 18 who shows up to a meal site. But while these meals are free, a recent report by the Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, which works to identify and address the root causes of hunger in Oregon, revealed there has been a 2 percent drop statewide in the number of students who actually take advantage of these summer lunch programs.

In Deschutes County, only about 12 percent of students who get free and reduced-price meals during the school year received these free summer lunches last summer. Jefferson County faired better at 17 percent.

Meanwhile, the report showed that in Crook County, only 2 percent of the students who normally have these meals during the rest of the school year took advantage of the free lunches last year. This was down by a staggering 79 percent from the summer of 2012 in Crook County, according to the report.

“We’re not sure what happened with (Crook County’s) program last summer,” Nelson said. “We never want to criticize anyone, but it’s been very concerning to us that participation went down so much last year.”

The program was re-established in Crook County in 2012. The Crook County School District initially ended the program in 2007 after federal reimbursements failed to cover the cost of it. In summer 2012, the program was offered at three sites in Prineville. Last summer, it was offered at one.

“From what I know, nobody was showing up,” said Dana Rudy, nutrition services manager with the Crook County School District. “We’ve been trying to find more sites this year where we think kids will come to.”

Rudy was hired by the district in February and will run the meals program this summer. She said there were days last summer when only two or three students would show up for a free lunch. Comparatively, more than 60 percent of the district’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

Nelson said there are many factors that contribute to low participation in summer. For example, getting students to and from a meal site can be a challenge for families — especially in a rural county.

“Transportation can be a huge barrier,” said Nelson. “Kids, especially in rural communities, might not have any way to get to a site. They might live too far away or their parents might be working, and they’re just not able to access these programs.”

Nelson said programs that are offered in multiple locations, and in locations where students frequent the rest of the year, tend to be the most successful.

But although the issue of transportation may exist in Crook County, it also does in Jefferson County, where the meals program has had more success. Last year, Jefferson County had eight meal sites, and there was a 53 percent increase in participation from the previous year, according to the report. Nelson said part of this is because there’s a higher need in Jefferson County. About 75 percent of students in the county qualify for a free and reduced-price lunch during the school year, and historically, the county has had a higher turnout at the meal sites.

In Deschutes County, there was also an increase in student participation from the year before. “Deschutes had a heck of a year last summer,” Nelson said of the 8 percent increase in participation. “We were really impressed. They’re a great model of how amazingly important it is to have these programs at sites like the Boys & Girls Club where children already frequent.”

Deschutes had 16 meal sites last summer. Garra Schluter, assistant supervisor of nutrition services for Bend-La Pine Schools, said that aside from outreach efforts, the uptick in participation may have had something to do with the types of meals served to students at some of the sites.

“The food is healthy and nutritious, and they’re hot meals,” said Schluter. “Sack lunches are great, but when you offer teriyaki chicken and rice or tacos, it makes it more inviting for kids to come in.”

Deschutes County is expanding to offer meals at three additional sites this summer, bringing its total to 19.

And although Crook County had a low participation rate last year, change may be ahead. The school district received a grant of $3,900 from the Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon to improve the program and fund staffing, allowing the county to expand to a total of four sites in Prineville.

Rudy, the Crook County district nutrition services manager, said she hopes to significantly increase the number of meals served this summer. She said she’s also brainstorming ways to better reach children and hopes to one day have a mobile summer lunch unit.

“There aren’t a lot of resources out here for kids to get meals,” Rudy said. “It makes this program really important.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0354, mkehoe@bendbulletin.com