Oregon continues to rank among the most "food insecure" states in the nation. Dependency on food stamps is at an all time high. According to the Children's Defense Fund, more than 315-thousand Oregon kids were eligible for free or reduced school lunches last year. So, what happens when school is out? KLCC's Tiffany Eckert looks at the problem of childhood hunger and what some agencies and school districts are doing to meet the need over the summer.
"B" Loftis has been feeding school kids for 27 years.
Loftis: "The cafeteria lady, yea." (laugh) Today we're having Rib-a-que, beef barbeque on hamburger bun, potato salad, half an apple and they get a choice of milk or chocolate milk."
The children fill the cafeteria fast at Cezar Chavez Elementary in Eugene. Some of them are in a summer reading program and the rest live in the community. "B" and her fellow lunch ladies are prepared to feed up to 350 kids lunch this afternoon. This is the Summer Meals Program provided by the 4-J School District. Keith Fiedler is Nutrition Services Director.
Fiedler: "The summer program is probably my favorite program of the year."
Feidler says kids arrive for free lunch in lots of ways.
Feidler: "You see them walking in, you see them riding their bikes. Some of them come with a parent or even a day care provider. I don't think there's a typical way they get here."
Reporter: "They just get here."
Feidler: "They get here."
As youngsters of all ages file in to take a carton of milk and a plate of food, Fiedler remembers one young girl.
Fiedler:"She couldn't have been more than 10. We used to call her "little mama." And she brought an infant and two other siblings every day-- so it was the four of them. And they came in for breakfast and they stayed through lunch. She not only needed meals. She needed a place to be safe."
The 4-J Summer Meals Program is offered during summer school at Chavez as well as Awbry Park and Madison Middle. Bethel School District feeds kids at five locations. So does the Springfield. While thousands of kids between the ages 1 and 18 are fed daily by these programs, there remains a serious need in outlying, rural areas. That's where food banks help fill the gap. Beverlee Hughes is Executive Director of FOOD for Lane County.
Hughes: "We are the largest provider of summer food throughout the state. We have 61 sites. I think we're serving 3,800 kids total in Lane County and 2,700 of them are in the Springfield-Eugene area."
One of those free lunch sites is at Guy Lee Park in Springfield. Today, about 100 kids come from the neighborhood and Willamalane Parks summer programs. The bag lunches contain veggies, fruit, a bagel with cream cheese and a hard boiled egg. A complete meal.
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden is here to hand out cartons of milk to eager, hungry kids. "Most kids want chocolate milk."
Wyden: "This kind of hunger is a moral blot on our state. I think we understand that hunger does not take the summer off."
People say 'there's no such thing as a free lunch.' Such is the case for the Summer Meals Programs. The fiscal goal for the school district and FOOD for Lane County is just to break even on summer meals after reimbursements from the US Department of Agriculture.
The perception of those who work to end hunger in Oregon is that there are just not enough good paying jobs to keep families afloat. Senator Wyden agrees. He says he'll use his seat on the Senate Budget Committee to approve resources and dollars for the Summer Meals Program.
Reporter: "Are you hungry?"
Reporter: "Have you eaten lunch here before?"
Reporter:"I hope you enjoy your lunch today."
Child:"Yea, I think I will."
FOOD for Lane County's Beverlee Hughes believes no one should go hungry this nation. Oregon's free meals programs work to ensure that the most vulnerable of our population will be fed.