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Hunger in the hallways

Athey Creek's PTSA offers breakfast to students who arrive at school hungry
by: vern uyetake Sandy Parker, Kate Hoots and Leann Gallien share their rolling cart filled with breakfast items for Athey Creek Middle School students who otherwise would arrive at school hungry.

In the morning rush it is often difficult to get nourishment into an under-rested and overscheduled middle school child - a piece of toast, a muffin, a bowl of cold cereal. However, breakfast isn't an option for many students in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District.

The number of students coming to school hungry is steadily increasing. Athey Creek Middle School, like most in the district, is noticing.

Athey Creek counselor Leann Gallien said the number of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch has doubled in the last three to four years and jumped 10 percent from last year.

'And we are not the highest need area in the district,' she said.

Athey Creek had a breakfast program through the district nutrition services department from 2008 through June 2011, but it was cut this year. In the past, students who qualified for free and reduced lunches could eat breakfast for free or at a lower price as well. At Athey Creek last school year, 13.1 percent of the students qualified for free and reduced lunches, which equates to 74 students. There are more this year, about 15 percent or 90 students.

This year, breakfast is only being served at Boeckman Creek Primary, Boones Ferry Primary, Wood Middle School, Art Tech High School (all of which have more than 30 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch) and both West Linn and Wilsonville high schools. Schools need to have 25 percent or more students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, or be a Title 1 school, before receiving federal funding to offset breakfast programs.

According to Cynthia Abel, district nutrition services manager, the high labor costs of providing a breakfast program was not offset by the number of kids buying breakfast, so last spring the district cut the breakfast programs in school that did not receive federal funding.

'It was not sustainable,' Abel said.

That means that some students are coming to school hungry and waiting until lunch before eating.

'I knew there were kids who were not getting breakfast,' Gallien said.

So, she decided to use part of her budget to buy granola bars and juice for students. In the first month, she served 120 kids breakfast.

Quickly realizing the problem was bigger than what her meager budget could handle, she turned to the school's PTSA. She shared the dilemma and asked for funding of $500 to $600 for more breakfasts.

'Through her, we became aware of the problem,' said Sandy Parker, PTSA president.

Doing a little research and asking around, the PTSA grasped the growing problem.

'Oregon is number one in the nation for childhood hunger,' said Kate Hoots, PTSA vice president. 'But childhood hunger is not something we think is affecting us.'

Acknowledging the problem could not be fixed with just a one-time donation, the PTSA started thinking.

'There are kids who wake up (hungry) and go to school that way. I've never been that hungry. I've never had to make the choice between heat and food,' Hoots said. 'It's hard to ask for food. There's a stigma attached to it.'

The PTSA took immediate action.

'Our group just got so motivated, angered, distressed by the situation,' Parker said. 'It's caught fire and it's like an inferno. It's been a hot topic. How can people not be upset about this topic?'

Going beyond Athey Creek's walls, the PTSA started forming networks and relationships.

To complement the supply of granola bars, Hoots goes to the West Linn Food Pantry once a week to get fresh fruit, bagels juice and sometimes milk.

'Kids can now have a bagel, cream cheese and an apple,' Hoots said.

The students who need breakfast at Athey Creek, come to the office where there is a cart with breakfast items set out for them. The PTSA also uses the staff fridge in the office to store perishable items.

It's a common saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day - and it's true, especially for growing kids.

'They are not going to be able to learn if they are hungry,' said Gallien. 'They won't be able to focus.'

'Think about it from a teacher's perspective,' said Parker. 'It makes for a really bad (learning) environment.'

'It's just a basic need,' said Gallien. 'If a kid's basic needs are not met, they are not going to learn.'

The PTSA is also holding a penny drive within the school, matching the raised funds.

To raise awareness of the issue, Hoots and Parker are in the midst of planning a 'breakfast summit' for late February. They want to bring together area school counselors, the PTSAs, school board members and district representatives to discuss the issue and find permanent ways to address it.

Hoots and Parker know that if Athey Creek has hungry kids, so do the other school in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District.

'They are all dealing with this on a granola bar by granola bar basis,' said Hoots. 'There needs to be some institution response.'

'We can all learn from each other and let the district know we are concerned,' said Parker, adding that hunger is an ongoing problem, not just seasonal.

In the meantime, the Athey Creek PTSA is requesting its families to bring in single-serving non-perishable breakfast food items like granola and cereal bars, trail mix and 100 percent juice boxes.

'I really appreciate the support of the community on this. There's a lot of need right now,' said Gallien.

For those who are not in the Athey Creek community, Hoots and Parker ask to look to other schools.

'Call the counselor, call the principal and ask, 'What can I do?' Or just bring in a box of granola bars,' said Hoots.

How to help

Contact your local school and ask if they need donations of food or funds to purchase fresh food items.

Donate to or volunteer at the West Linn Food Pantry, 1683 Willamette Falls Dr.,

West Linn. For more information about the pantry, call 503-880-8140.

Become informed. Visit http://oregonhunger.org.

How to get help

According to Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, last year half of all students in Oregon qualified for free or reduced price meals (a decade ago that percentage was only a third).

In the WLWV district, visit www.wlwv.k12.or.us/Page/305 to find information and an application for free and reduced lunch.

There are a number of other ways to receive assistance.

SNAP/food stamps: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps low-income people and families buy the food they need. Benefits are provided on an electronic card that is used like an ATM card and accepted at most grocery stores.

Call Oregon SafeNet with questions about getting or using SNAP benefits at 1-800-SAFENET (988-5858).

Visit www.oregonhelps.org to screen yourself for SNAP and other program eligibility.

Women, Infants and Children (WIC): The Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children is an integral part of the Department of Human Services (DHS) Public Health Division. WIC is designed to reach families most in need of preventative health services and to address health disparities. Clackamas WIC Clinic - (503) 655-8476.

WIC services to Oregon families include: breastfeeding education and support, individual growth and health assessments, education on nutrition and physical activity, referrals to other preventative health services like prenatal care and immunizations, nutritious foods purchased with WIC vouchers.

Oregon SafeNet: This is a toll free health and social service helpline for Oregon. Call 1-800-SAFENET to be referred to basic need services including food, health care, shelter and bill assistance. For more information, visit www.oregonsafenet.org.

Oregon Helps: This is a free, confidential online pre-screener that helps families estimate potential eligibility for food and social service programs. For more information, visit www.oregonhelps.org.

Emergency food in Oregon:

The Oregon Food Bank is a charitable organization that collects food from a variety of sources and distributes it through a statewide network of 20 regional food banks in Oregon and Clark County, Wash. For more information or to locate resources, call 1-800-777-7427 or visit www.oregonfoodbank.org.

West Linn Food Pantry: The food pantry serves residents of West Linn and Lake Oswego. It is located at 1683 Willamette Falls Dr. For more information, call 503-880-8140.




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