25 Nov

Thanksgiving one more day in trying to keep kids fed

Some years at this time, the after-school support staff at Parklane and Oliver schools has some donated turkeys to distribute. This Thanksgiving, they didn’t

Still, the twin elementary schools out by Southeast 158th, with 89 percent of their students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, maintain a massive effort to try to keep their students fed. It’s almost like nutrition was important for kids to learn something.

Besides lunch, there’s breakfast, served in one school in class, in the other in the cafeteria. For kids staying after classes, about 85 from each school, there’s dinner late in the afternoon. In other words, says Sarai Rodriguez, coordinator of the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods program at Parklane, a significant number of students get all three meals at school.

She recalls, “I heard a mom telling a kid, ‘You need to eat your supper, because there’s no food at home.’”

The schools also try to have some fruit around for kids, and it can be surprising how often some of them sample the supply. But nobody complains, because as Rodriguez points out, teachers can see a student get calmer when there’s something in his stomach.

For the times when school isn’t in session, there’s a summer lunch program, and a handful of kids getting food backpacks to help them through the weekend. And because the kids’ families can also be hungry, there are some emergency food boxes from the local SnowCap community agency, and food brought around by Urban Gleaners, and bread donated by Dave’s Killer Bread; mothers, or grandmothers, pick up a loaf when they get their kids from the program. Students from Centennial High School sometimes bring over a school bus to provide a mobile pantry.

And there’s a two-acre community garden, which, Rodriguez thinks, produces not only vegetables but community.

It takes a lot to keep more than 800 kids in a low-income area fed, but it seems you can’t do much else until you do.

The drive is bolstered by local volunteers and agencies, including Metropolitan Family Services, which operates the SUN programs around here. But the core of the effort, the school breakfasts and lunches and late-afternoon meals, and the summer food program, comes from the federal government, which is now trying to figure out its programs.

Every five years, Congress has to reauthorize all the child nutrition programs, the school lunches and the summer food and the Women, Infants and Children program for small children and pregnant women and the Child and Adult Food Care program supporting day care and after-school efforts. In 2010, with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, Congress expanded the programs and raised the nutritional levels, providing some more money to support the new standards.

That was, however, a different Congress. This year, just passing reauthorization seems unlikely – which, considering that no reauthorization leaves the programs unchanged, might not be the worst thing.
“We’d like to see it reauthorized if it’s a good bill,” says Kevin Concannon, undersecretary of agriculture for food and nutrition (and former director of the Oregon Department of Human Services).

Key for the Obama administration, he says, is “We want to see it preserve the integrity of the school meals program,” notably the 2010 nutritional gains, including more fresh fruit and vegetables. He’d also like to strengthen the summer programs: “The time a child is most likely to be hungry is in the summertime.”

When Congress is likely to manage reauthorization is a lot less clear. The Senate Agriculture Committee, handling the bill on that side of the Capitol, has been holding hearings and might move, and there’s some interest in strengthening the summer programs. At the end of October, Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., promised, “We are nearing the finish line” on a reauthorization.

In the House, of course, achieving anything is further away, and reauthorization seems unlikely this year. It goes through the House Education Committee, where Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., who represents the other side of Portland, has a proposal to strengthen the Child and Adult Food Care program and to simplify paperwork for sites with both child care and summer programs. Both changes would affect Parklane and Oliver.

House Republicans, however, also keep talking about big cuts in food stamps – with, Concannon points out, 48 percent of the client base under 18 – which could considerably outweigh any improvements in the child nutrition programs.

What’s needed, says Bonamici, is Congress considering “more long-term interests than we usually do.”

Maybe that could produce a clear child hunger position by next Thanksgiving.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 11/25/15.

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