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Levy hopes to put food on kids' tables

Meals on Wheels People seek funds to expand delivery plans


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Meals on Wheels People Executive Director Joan Smith delivers a dinner to a Northwest Portland resident (who declined to be identified). Smith says the nonprofit has applied for Children's Levy funds to provide evening meals to low-income children.The Portland Children’s Levy begins a new chapter this year when it adds fighting child hunger to the categories of programs it will support.

For the first time since voters created the city-administered fund in 2002, nonprofit organizations are applying to begin or expand programs that will provide food to children at their homes and schools. The organizations include Meals on Wheels People, which is seeking $1.5 million to deliver food to children in their homes for the first time. Another is the Oregon Food Bank, which wants to start a breakfast program.

Portland voters added fighting child hunger to the category list in 2013 when they renewed the levy for the second time. The previous categories — including early childhood education and abuse prevention — remained the same.

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman included the fighting child hunger component of the levy in the most recent approval. Saltzman also sponsored measures placed on the ballot by the City Council in 2002 and 2008.

“I thought we needed to do something to address the growing awareness of hunger in our city, especially among our children,” says Saltzman. “When children are hungry, they don’t thrive or perform well academically.”

Saltzman says he was especially struck by the statistic from the Oregon Food Bank that about 12,000 children in Portland a month “eat from an emergency food box.” When he was considering adding the child hunger relief category, Saltzman met with Meals on Wheels Executive Director Joan Smith and the organization’s board of directors to see if their organization would be interested in starting an evening meal delivery program aimed at children. Many low-income children are already guaranteed meals at school.

“Evening meals can be the biggest question mark to a child, Meals on Wheels has been delivering meals to homes for a long time. They have a central kitchen and a strong volunteer organization, so I wanted to see if they’d be interested. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say I’m thrilled they submitted an application,” says Saltzman.

Smith says her organization is enthusiastic about the possibility of Portland Children’s Levy grant, saying meeting the needs of hungry children in the area is a daunting task.

“Our plan is to deliver a week’s worth of complete meals to the most vulnerable families with children,” she says. “The idea is they could use that food to supplement the other food they buy with food stamps or obtain through emergency food boxes. That way children would be guaranteed meals even when school is out.”

Smith appreciates being able to work with Saltzman — a longtime Meals on Wheels volunteer — as he worked through the idea. “But,” she adds, “all of the applications are good ones.”

Adding the new category to the Children’s Levy is not expected to reduce the money available for the other ones because total revenue is projected to increase. As in the past, organizations are asking for more money than is expected to be available. This time around, 115 organizations are seeking $81 million in three-year grants — more than twice the $33 million expected to be available.

A five-person allocation committee begins deciding which requests to fund this month. It includes Saltzman, Multnomah County Chair Marissa Madrigal, one citizen appointed by the city, one person appointed by the county and one person appointed by the Portland Business Alliance. The committee will meet on May 12 and May 19 to take testimony on the requests. Funding decisions by the committee will be made on May 30 and June 9.

All meetings will be held in the Council Chambers in Portland City Hall, 1221 S.W. Fourth Ave.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Meals on Wheels People cook Nadia Tovkach, left, prepare dinners at the nonprofit groups Multnomah kitchen. City Commissioner Dan Saltzman has asked that the Children's Levy expand to provide evening meals for low-income children.

Eligible categories

Although Multnomah County has traditionally taken the lead in funding social service programs, Saltzman proposed the Portland Children’s Levy as a way the city could help low-income and at-risk children without creating a new bureaucracy. Funds raised through the five-year property tax levies approved by the voters are distributed to existing nonprofit organizations with proven track records. A small city staff staff administers the fund and monitors the spending approved by the volunteer selection committee.

The levy costs the owner of a home with an assessed value of $150,000 about $60 a year. It generates about $10 million a year. Administrative expenses cannot exceed more than 5 percent of revenue, meaning that 95 cents of every dollar is spent on children’s programs.

Funds are distributed through a competitive grant process. Each grant is initially scheduled to run three years, and are renewed for an additional two years if the organization complies with them. Only a handful of grants have not been renewed, mostly because the organizations went out of business.

This is the last year of the 2008 levy. It is funding 50 programs for children, from birth through high school. An additional four programs are being financed through a leverage fund that increases the available revenue. They serve approximately 14,000 children.

For both the 2002 and 2008 levies, eligible program categories were: child abuse prevention and intervention; foster care; child hunger relief; early childhood development; after-school programs; and mentoring. Some nonprofit organizations applied for grants in multiple categories.

Portland Children’s Levy officials say recent statistics justify adding child hunger relief to the funding categories. Among other things, in 2011, 24.2 percent of children in Multnomah County were “food insecure,” which indicates disrupted eating patterns or reduced consumption caused by skipped meals and smaller portions. That year, close to half of children younger than 4 in the county were receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Also in 2011, more than a third of children younger than 17 in the county received benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. And that year, 56 percent of students in Portland school districts were eligible for the federally subsidized school lunch program that serves children in low-income families.