It takes a lot of effort to feed these kids lunch.
To put the bananas and low-fat milk in front of these 78 kids, from silent hand-holders not quite reaching hip-level to recent fifth-grade graduates trying on new middle-school faces for the fall, it’s taking efforts by the North Clackamas school district, support by Metropolitan Family Services, some federal summer food funding, some food from Oregon Food Bank, volunteers from GracePointe Church in Milwaukie and contributions from local suppliers like Dave’s Killer Bread. Besides putting lunch on the plastic trays, the coalition sends home some apples for snacks and sets out some bread, oranges and cabbages in front of the school for parents to pick up.
But even bigger than the effort is the hole it’s trying to fill.
Lot Whitcomb elementary school, out between the Milwaukie city line and Southeast 82nd Ave., has the highest free and reduced-price lunch eligibility in the North Clackamas district, with 90 percent of its students eligible for help. That gives the school a role way beyond teaching spelling.
“During the school year, a lot of kids eat all their meals here, breakfast, lunch and after-school snack,” explains Ally Meyer, coordinator of the program for Metropolitan Family Services, as she directs kids from turning in their trays to the art projects in back of the room. “When summer comes, they’re not getting that, and it puts a big strain on families.”
And with all of this effort, the program lasts only four weeks, leaving a lot of summer before next September’s first school lunch.
Out in front of the school, by the table with the bread and oranges, Bonnie Marston and three other volunteers wear T-shirts reading “gp kids,” but want to make it clear they’re not advertising GracePointe. They turn around to show the rear message, “Kids Are Awesome.”
She’s explaining a program that after a year’s planning starts next month, to deliver summer lunches to the housing developments where most of the kids who go to Lot Whitcomb live. This effort also involves a lot of people, including the owner of the development.
“We don’t want kids to skip meals,” she says. “We don’t want parents to skip meals, or to have to make those choices.”
Across the continent, another Northwesterner is working on a more direct plan to achieve that. Last month, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act, which would give children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch $150 a summer in food stamp benefits over the summer.
It would be almost like the country was serious about feeding them.
“We do a pretty good job in school, but when school gets out, they fall behind,” said Murray in an interview. When the kids come back in September, she notes, they’ve fallen behind in more than multiplication.
Twenty-one million kids get free or reduced-price school lunches, but summer food programs reach only three million of them. The activist group Feed Washington calls summer “The Peak Season for Childhood Hunger.”
Murray’s bill is based on a pilot program in 14 cities, including Vancouver, Wash., that reduced summer child hunger by a third. It would work with existing programs; as the senator notes, “There’s not just one tool in the tool box.”
It would cost about $4 billion a year over the next 10 years. She would cover it by closing what she calls a tax loophole benefiting corporations who send jobs to other countries.
With the Republicans controlling the House of Representatives more interesting in cutting food stamps – the program has been cut twice in the past year, and the 10-year Paul Ryan budget passed by the House would cut it by much more – the bill wouldn’t seem to have much of a hope. “House Republicans,” said Murray, “seem to think that people just sit around waiting to be fed.”
But Murray, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and fourth in the Democratic Senate leadership – and the only senator who was ever a preschool teacher, and one of the few who has ever received food stamps – sees a number of different paths.
Every year, Congress is supposed to pass an Agriculture Appropriations Act, although the lawmakers haven’t been very good at doing that lately. Next year – or maybe the year after or the year after that – Congress faces reauthorizing all of the child nutrition programs.
Attaching Murray’s idea to any of these bills would be a heavy lift.
But it takes a lot of effort just to feed the kids we manage to feed now.
NOTE: Column appeared in The Oregonian, June 29, 2014