FONT & AUDIO
Schools: Free lunches fill need in community
The temperature was creeping into the mid-80s as volunteers served fettucine alfredo, fruit salad, cucumbers, bread sticks and corn at Atfalati Park this Monday, but trees provided plenty of shade for dozens of families to sit and enjoy their meals.
It was an ideal day for the Summer Food Service Program, a national program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that funds free lunches for people 18 and younger, and affordable $3.50 meals for adults. The Tigard-Tualatin and Beaverton School Districts both participate in the program, as do other districts in Washington County.
"Hot food is actually more popular," said Diane Wylie, food service manager for the Tigard-Tualatin School District, as she watched kids line up for their meals. "It draws a lot more attendance, and smiles and positivity behind it."
Wylie has been coordinating the summer meals program for the district since it started in 2008. She follows the USDA guidelines of "no questions asked," meaning that everyone is welcome to attend a feeding, and all people younger than 18 are entitled to a free meal. The federal government reimburses states for each meal served.
"We're self-sufficient," Wylie said. "There's no (district) general fund dollars going into this."
According to Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici's office, the summer lunch program would likely be affected if funding for school meals was cut, which is an option Republicans have placed on the table.
"School meals make a positive difference for students, and I've seen that in schools across Northwest Oregon," the congresswoman said. "Access to nutritious foods supports children's healthy development, and it helps them succeed in the classroom. But once again, the majority in Congress is proposing to cut budgets even though there are still many hungry students in schools. Cuts to school meal programs are short-sighted because healthy children are more likely to become productive adults."
Each district operates feeding sites every week day — in Tigard-Tualatin, that can mean as many as 12 sites per day, though it varies from district to district — and those sites include schools, parks and libraries. Wylie said that Atfalati Park is the most popular Tigard-Tualatin site, likely because it is easily walkable for families.
In the Beaverton School District, Beaverton City Park is among the most popular sites. Attendance has been up in some sites and down in others in both districts, but typically, the sites that have more to offer are the most heavily attended.
"We're finding that sometimes park sites have more participants than the school site, because of all the playground equipment," said Lisa Vincent, the operations supervisor for the summer meals program in Beaverton.
That's one of the reasons why Washington County districts have developed local partnerships with THPRD, their local libraries and other organizations to provide educational and entertaining programs.
Last Monday at Atfalati Park, volunteers from the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge manned a table that had information about the Native Americans who lived in the Tualatin Valley centuries ago, and featured tools and artifacts they had used.
"We have Nature Ambassadors to bring the ideas from the refuge to the community," said Pat Allaire, an Oregon master naturalist. "We get a great response here at the park."
"They were really excited about bringing the outdoors to kids who may or may not be able to get over to the Wildlife Refuge," Wylie added. "We find when we get those community partners, we tend to get a little higher attendance."
For Tracie Peterson, who brings her 2-year-old son Owen and 4-year-old daughter Ellie to feedings at Atfalati Park often, the program both fulfills a practical need and provides family summer entertainment.
"It's just nice to be able to not cook and not have to clean up at the house," Peterson said. "Last time we came, Tualatin Library had some robots that they loved playing with. We had a blast."
The meals served always include at least one hot entrée option, as well as fruit, vegetables, bread and vegetarian options. Frederic Hammond, 8, an incoming third-grader at Byrom Elementary, appreciated the variety.
"Sometimes I like the food, sometimes I don't," he said. "But I always like part of the food."
Some school districts in Washington County partner with local farms for fresh produce — the blueberries served in Atfalati Park Monday were from a farm in Lebanon — and also use produce from their school gardens when it's available.
Families at Atfalati Park said they came for a range of reasons, and not necessarily out of a financial need. But there are a lot of families in Washington County who do have that need — The Tigard-Tualatin School District alone has seven Title 1 schools, meaning they receive additional federal funding to support low-income families — and reaching those families can be a challenge. According to the USDA, 83.8 percent of eligible kids in Oregon do not take advantage of free summer meals.
"Getting the word out is the easy part," Wylie said. "Getting the word to people who really need it is the difficult part."
She gave Metzger Elementary, one of the district's Title 1 schools, as an example. The school itself is not easily walkable for many of its students, and there are few viable park options nearby.
"Metzger's not an easy school to get to, but there's a real need there," Wylie said. "That's our biggest challenge."
Another challenge is feeding teenagers, who are not as likely to come to feeding sites with their parents as younger kids are. Wylie said that using Tualatin High School and Tualatin Public Library, which has a teen program, as feeding sites has helped with that, but there's still room for improvement.
"Kids get good nutrition during the summer, that's our hope," said Vincent. "We just hope that everybody who needs it will come."
The summer meals program runs through Aug. 18. Families looking to take advantage of the program can visit their school district's website, or call the USDA National Hunger Hotline. The number for English speakers is 1-866-3-HUNGRY, and Spanish speakers can call 1-877-8-HAMBRE.