Unlike school times, there is no summer food programFor three months out of the year, children who rely on free and reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches don't have access to the federally-funded meals.

That's because when local schools close for the summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture school nutrition program here shuts down, too.

What happens to the hungry children is anyone's guess.

School district officials, food pantry volunteers and advocates for the hungry are all baffled.

"I really don't know what the kids do," said Crikette Lovejoy, business manager for the Seaside School District.

But asking how children get by is not an idle question.

On average, 1,258 Clatsop County children eat free and reduced-price lunches during the school year, according to Children First, a nonprofit advocacy group for children. Families have come to depend on the meals to stretch their budgets and provide children with adequate nutrition. In Astoria, 45 percent of students district wide use the program - up to 65 percent at John Jacob Astor Elementary - and Astoria Food Service Director Dan Pimm said he thinks more families would qualify if they applied.

Numbers are similarly high in Seaside, with 41 percent of children using the program, including 69 percent of students at Seaside Heights Elementary.

With so many children reliant on school food, Pimm, who tracks the Astoria district's meal participation numbers, said he believes there is a need for a summer program.

"You have to assume that if 50 percent of our student population is taking advantage of free and reduced (meals) during the school year, there are meals they aren't eating during the summer," he said.

No grant moneyThe Astoria School District sponsored a summer program for students until this year, when its grant money dried up. The six-week summer Connections program combined activities, curriculum and meals. The food was available to all students up to age 18, regardless of income level. MORE INFO.Year-round numbers reveal that Oregon is the second hungriest state in the nation, ranking just behind Oklahoma. Fourteen percent of families consistently worry about being able to provide nutritionally adequate food for their families. And according to the Oregon Food Bank, 67,000 children need emergency food in an average month.The government subsidized the meals for all students, and the Connections program picked up the tab for the staff to lead the activities and curriculum.

In 2003, the last year of the three-year program, kids received 1,820 breakfasts and 2,428 lunches.

"I would say a very good percentage of those were free and reduced because we find those are (the same children) who typically participate in summer school programs," Pimm said.

But when the grant money ran out, the entire program disappeared - including the subsidized meals. Providing food for children without having an activity program attached is exceedingly difficult. Students rarely come unless there are activities in addition to meals, and in this case, the staff who oversaw the activities and curriculum were actually paid for by the grant money.

"Economically it's just not feasible," Pimm said.

High numbersNationally, only one in five children who receive free or reduced-price lunches during the school year participates in summer feeding programs, according to a report released last month by the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that works to change public hunger policies.

"...Many working families must scramble to feed their children until the school year starts again, a daunting challenge," the report stated.

The report ranked Oregon as one of the five worst states for declines in summer nutrition program participation.

But even without a summer food program, considered one of the biggest resource for children, local food pantries aren't seeing a jump.

"We've never had a mother with her children show up at the door and say they're hungry," said Michelle McCarley, house manager at Pioneer House. "I'm sure it's impacting our community, but we haven't seen anything."

Instead, children might be skipping meals and families stretching what they have.

"It may not be always really obvious that families are going hungry, but it's out there and it's happening," said Holly Wilkalis, program coordinator for the Hunger Relief Taskforce, an advocacy group for Oregonians who are hungry or considered at risk of being hungry.

LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

Mark Markhamm, who says he has been homeless for "too long," picks up food at the North County Clatsop Emergency Food Bank Wednesday. Sixteen families came in Wednesday for their allotment of food, feeding 36 children.She said families worry not only about having enough food, but about quality and variety, and whether the food is nutritious.

"When we go out and talk to parents, they're saying 'My kids are not starving but the quality of food has gone down,'" she said. "'We're watering down Top Ramen or soup. They're not getting enough fruit or vegetables.'"

However, it's important to note that not all students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals are going without during the summer, especially those at the top of the bracket.

Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents.

For the period July 1, 2003, through June 30, 2004, 130 percent of the poverty level was $23,920 for a family of four; 185 percent was $34,040.

While counties and camps can sponsor student summer meal programs, Wilkalis said school districts are often the best sponsors because they already have the kitchen equipment and are familiar with the federal meals program, which ultimately provides reimbursement for feeding low-income kids.

But because the reimbursement is fairly low, high costs of milk or gas can push a program to the point where it isn't breaking even, and most districts can't afford to absorb the difference.

Success storiesThe St. Helens School District has been running a summer feeding program since 1995. It runs under a federal waiver that allows a school that has more than 50 percent of its student on free and reduced meals during the school year to offer meals to anyone under 18 during the summer.

On an average day, 450 or 500 children eat at the site, and as many as 700 have been known to show up on a single day.

Penny Leader, director of nutrition for the district, said the community has come to depend on the program during the summer.

"Not everyone has a cupboard full of food with a gallon of milk handy," she said.

The North Bend school district in Coos County also runs a summer feeding program; it served more than 13,000 lunches in July.

Coordinator Rhonda Hoffine said the meal they provide is often the only one a child will get. She said many kids ask for extra portions during lunch, or food to take home for later, but the program can't give out extras if it wants to break even and stay in operation.

"I had a little kid who said 'Can I have another hot-dog?' We said 'We can't' and he went back to his little table and was so sad. He came back, 'Can I at least have a bun?'"

In Lane County, the county food bank manages a summer meal program for children that serves 3,000 children per day - the largest program in the state.

"It's vital" said Karen Roth, manager of the food service program for Food for Lane County.

Roth said children who don't have proper nutrition during the summer aren't as able to go back to school and learn. They're hyperactive, pale, or have trouble concentrating.

"If we don't keep our kids healthy to learn, they'll become societal problems," she said.

Roth is encouraging counties like Clatsop to take a second look at summer food programs because it might be a little easier to get programs started for summer 2005. Oregon has been selected to be part of the federal Lugar pilot program. Sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, the program will ease summer food program paperwork, and potentially increase the reimbursement rate for meals, which will make it easier for programs to stay in the black.

"The summer food program is the most-needed of child nutrition programs but it's the least utilized," she said.

Clatsop County's Hunger Taskforce is starting to look into a way to provide for children during the summer. Representatives from Clatsop Community Action, the OSU Family Nutrition Program, the Oregon Food Bank and Astoria School District meet September.

"It is something I am currently involved with and interested in pursuing further because there are a lot of students out there who would benefit from the program," Pimm said.

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