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Summer in Southwest: (almost) no such thing as a free lunch

Fewest free meals, supervised playground activities offered to Southwest Portland kids


Every summer, after the final bell of the school year has rung, Portland Parks & Recreation, Portland Public Schools and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon team up to offer the recreation and nutrition that many kids in Portland rely on schools to provide.by: CONNECTION PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Markham Elementary School is the only site in Southwest Portland where qualifying kids can get free, federally funded meals during summer break.

Through its Summer Playground Program, part of its so-called Summer Free For All, structured and supervised programs are offered each summer in many of Portland’s parks, according to the PP&R website. Many locations also offer a nutritious lunch to children from birth through age 18.

That fun, however, is not altogether equally distributed. In Southwest Portland, there are just two playground program sites — Markham Elementary School in the West Portland Park neighborhood and Pendleton Park, three miles north in Hayhurst — compared to eight dedicated sites in Southeast Portland and 15 in Northeast.

And while there are seven sites in Northeast Portland and 12 in Southeast that participate in PP&R Playground on Wheels, in which vans travel daily from site to site, in Southwest, there are none.

According to Parks & Recreation Public Information

Officer Mark Ross,“Citywide, one in five families ... do not enjoy easy access to a park or

natural area, defined by a 15-minute walk, and many of these families are in East Portland, which was incorporated later into the city and

does not yet enjoy many of the same amenities as other areas in town.”

In Southwest, access to subsidized meals is in short supply for children as well.

Through Oregon’s Summer Food Service Program, Portland Public Schools pays to provide food paid and is then reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.

According to the most current Oregon Department of Education data, the school with the highest percentage of students —58.8 percent — who qualify for free or reduced lunch in Southwest Portland is Markham. It is also the only one in the area where free lunch is served.

“Summer Food Service ... can be placed ... within the area of a local school that has at least 50 percent or more of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches,” said Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon Deputy Director Jessica Chanay. “So if a school doesn’t have that percentage, it can’t be placed there.”

That, Ross said, “limits the number of Summer Lunch programs in Southwest Portland.”

Markham became a Summer Food Service Program site in 2006, the first year that, with 50.1 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, it qualified to participate.

In addition to lunch served outside on the Markham playground by Portland Parks & Recreation, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon also served breakfast and lunch Monday through Thursday mornings from July 8 to Aug. 1 inside, bringing the total daily meals available on the Markham campus at some point during the summer to three.

But that doesn’t do much good for the 934 kids eligible for free or reduced lunch who attend other Southwest Portland schools, not counting local stu- dents who are districted to attend schools outside the Southwest area such as Chapman Elementary School in the Northwest District, East-West Sylvan Middle School in Sylvan Highlands and Beaverton and Lincoln High School in Goose Hollow.

“In collaboration with Multnomah County, local school districts and nonprofits such as Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon,” Ross said, “it has been deter- mined that the need for free summer lunches is greatest in North and in East Portland.”

“If they need free summer meals and they can’t get to Markham ... the closest other sites are in Tigard and Tualatin,” said Lelsey Nelson, child hunger prevention manager with Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. “In terms of summer food, they don’t have too many other options in and around Southwest Portland.”

For students with no neighborhood meal sites, “I would certainly say that transportation can be an issue and not as reasonable,” said Shannon Stember, Portland Public Schools nutrition services assistant director.

Indeed, a search on the TriMet website for bus stops near Stephenson Elementary School in Southwest Portland’s Arnold Creek neighborhood returns 15 results, 13 of them not in Portland, but Lake Oswego. According to Google Maps, the remaining two stops—both at the corner of Southwest Boones Ferry Road and 13th Court — are a 21-minute walk away.

Stember said that if transportation is an issue, an alternative may exist in Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children, a pilot project to provide extra summer food benefits for children of up to $60 a month, using the same electronic benefits card that Oregon families use for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits.

“I personally think that is just an excellent program that helps reach families where they are and provides meals ... in the way they run their household: They can choose what’s on the menu and they can provide meals for their family,” she said. “It’s one of the better ways to make up for that gap that happens in the summer.”

And as for the Summer Food Service Program, Stember said, “There was never any guarantee that summer food programs could reach every single eligible student, because it needs to be done in a way where we go where most of the kids are. You can’t go meal by meal, child by child.”

This disparity in Summer Playground Program offerings could be ameliorated, however.

“We would love to expand our Summer Playgrounds program,” Ross said. “What options are there for Southwest Portland to get more playgrounds or lunch programs during the summer? If there is a desire from the Southwest Portland community to increase the number of Summer Playgrounds programs, they can contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to discuss potential fundraising options, ideas and procedures.”

Ross asserts that there is a precedent for making headway to that end, noting, “In East Portland ... the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association raised $34,000 toward mobile playgrounds.”

But for this summer, at least, Southwest Portland kids will have to be satisfied that Portland Parks & Recreation “works to reach out to the most needy and underserved populations,” Ross said, “and most of those are in East Portland.”