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Hungry for answers

• Meals are there for eligible kids, but in many cases the kids aren't

The children and their parents begin lining up at 11:30 a.m.

Thirty minutes later, recreation workers at Southeast Portland's Lents Park begin handing out 125 free lunches Ñ each tray containing a roast beef sandwich, carrots, a plum, a cookie and a carton of milk Ñ to the children.

All of the lunches are gone in 10 minutes, leaving a few children empty-handed.

Sorry, a worker tells an Asian man standing in line with his three children when the food runs out. 'We'll order more tomorrow.'

The scene last week would seem to represent a snapshot of hunger in Portland, located in a state that has the dubious Ñ if somewhat controversial Ñ distinction of having the highest hunger rate in the nation.

But it's not that simple. There have been days this summer when food sites across the city have run out of children seeking meals before running out of the lunches.

And last summer, only 17 percent of the Oregon children who were eligible for the federally funded summer food program actually used it.

To some, the low participation only adds to their suspicions about the credibility of the federal surveys Ñ two of them since 1999 Ñ that say Oregon has the highest hunger rate in the nation.

'I really don't think we have this massive hunger problem,' said John Charles, a senior policy analyst who has studied hunger issues for Portland's Cascade Policy Institute. He points to other poverty and income statistics that show Oregon as 'very average.'

But others say that the hunger problem in Oregon is real, and that the low participation in the summer program can be traced to problems with the program and to the realities of life for poor families.

'There's an issue (there),' the Oregon Food Bank's Cassandra Garrison said of the low participation. 'There's not enough sites. There's not enough funding. There's not enough outreach. And, meanwhile, kids are going without.'

The children eligible for the summer food program are those eligible for free or reduced-price lunches during the school year. They participate in the school lunch program because they're already at school. But many don't know of the summer program, or don't have transportation to get to the lunch sites, or their parents don't want them at a largely unsupervised site away from home or from day care.

'We're not set up as a community to fill in those gaps when school isn't in (session),' said Swati Adarkar, spokeswoman for the Oregon Hunger Relief Task Force.

But how big are the gaps? And how big of a problem is hunger in Oregon?

The widely quoted federal study released last year showed Oregon's hunger rate as 5.8 percent from 1999 through 2001 Ñ almost twice the national average and higher than any other state. But the margin of error for the study means the rate could have been as low as 4.9 percent, still above average but not necessarily the highest in the nation.

And the study Ñ which uses 18 U.S. Census Bureau questions about hunger to get its results Ñ defines hunger as a much different phenomenon than starvation or malnutrition.

In general, if respondents said anyone in their families had at times skipped a meal because they didn't have enough money for food in the previous year, the study defined them as among the hungry.

Northwest numbers baffle

What's perplexing to some about the study, and the previous one released in 1999, are the high hunger rates shown by Oregon and Washington. Washington's rate was 4.6 percent in the 1999-2001 study; only three other states had a rate above 4.0. Both Oregon and Washington have much lower poverty rates than some Southern and Southeastern states that had lower hunger rates.

Researchers and advocates for the poor say the higher hunger rates may be due to a few factors. The income gap between the poorest and the richest Oregonians is unusually wide, and housing costs as a percentage of income are exceptionally high in Oregon, especially in Portland and a few other cities. The state also has a relatively high number of seasonal workers. The poverty rate doesn't necessarily measure any of those factors.

But: 'All of those things combine to create an economy where low-income people find themselves stressed to the point where a particularly high percentage of them go hungry, particularly at certain times of the year,' said Michael Leachman, who's studied hunger issues for the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

Other Oregon advocates for the poor agree Ñ which is why they're concerned about the relatively low participation in the federal summer food program.

A few less than 27,000 Oregon children participated in the program last July Ñ or about 17 percent of the kids who were eligible. That participation was down 1 percentage point from July 2001.

The participation rate in Portland is equally low Ñ and has been declining since at least 1999.

Last July, Portland Public Schools Ñ which sponsors most of Portland's summer food sites Ñ served an average of about 3,400 lunches a day. By comparison, about 23,000 students eligible for the program lived within Portland Public Schools boundaries last year.

This year, the school district is sponsoring 61 sites in the city Ñ most of them at schools or at city parks. Through the last couple weeks of June, the number of students served was up about 10 percent from the same period last year, according to Shannon Stember, who runs the program for the school district.

Balancing act

What happened at Lents Park Ñ running out of food Ñ doesn't happen very often, Stember said.

But it illustrates the guessing game that program workers need to navigate.

If the program prepares too many meals, food is wasted and the program sponsor ends up losing money; the federal government only reimburses the sponsor for lunches it actually serves Ñ at a rate of about $2 per lunch.

'I don't want to see any waste,' Stember said. 'But on the other hand, the whole idea is to feed hungry kids. And if you're not serving food for 15 kids É that's not what we set out to do. It's a game of chance.'

More often, workers estimate the number of lunches they will need and have a few left over. The PPS program is serving about 93 percent of the meals prepared this year, according to Stember.

But the meal-preparation forecasting doesn't deal with the larger issue Ñ that most eligible kids in Portland aren't even trying to get the meals.

Advocates for the poor suggest there are several reasons.

There are fewer sponsoring organizations and fewer sites than there might be, they say, because sponsoring organizations have to pay for the program upfront Ñ and deal with bureaucratic paperwork Ñ before being reimbursed for the meals later.

Others say much of the low participation can be attributed to simpler barriers: families ignorant of the program's existence or unable to find a way for their children to get to the sites or spend time there with only limited supervision, advocates for the poor said.

'You have an awful lot of school-aged kids who are latchkey kids in the summer,' said Patti Whitney-Wise, executive director of the Oregon Hunger Relief Task Force, set up by the Legislature 14 years ago to deal with hunger issues. 'They certainly could benefit from the meals. But in at least some of the cases, parents are saying, 'Lock the door, and don't open it for anybody.' '

Quantity and quality

Julie Wamboldt was able to accompany her two boys to Lents Park last week. She just had quit her administrative assistant job, she said, because state budget cuts mean her family no longer gets help paying for day-programs for her disabled 10-year-old son.

It's frustrating when the food runs out early, Wamboldt said, as she watched her two sons play after last week's lunch.

But she appreciates the program.

Because of money problems, her sons 'would not get as much as what they get here, or maybe it wouldn't be as balanced like what they get here at the park,' she said. 'Who can afford to buy fruit like that? Who can afford to feed their child a roast beef sandwich?

'There are a lot of kids (for whom) their most substantial meal of the day is what they get here at the park,' she said.

Some of the sites try to have all-day programs to attract more families and kids. And various Portland groups staged special events at some of the sites last week to try to let more people know that the program existed.

'One of the things we have to do is get the program going so the word get out Ñ one kid to another,' said Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who attended a Portland event last week to highlight one of the sites.

'My view of it is this is something we can win,' he said of fighting hunger in the state through such programs. 'We can win this one.'

Contact Todd Murphy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .