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Unique Portland program builds on Meals on Wheels model to feed hungry children

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Meals 4 Kids staff driver Josh Hancock unloads meals for Juanita Nelson and two of her children in Southeast Portland. Ian Woods answers readily when asked when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“Aug. 9, 2013,” Woods says. “A day you don’t forget.”

It marked the threshold between the life of a football star at Jefferson High School to a stooped man who takes two hours and a motor scooter to make a simple grocery run.

“My mother always made miracles every Thanksgiving, so I’m just trying to follow in her beautifulness,” Woods says. But as a sole caregiver to his 14-year-old younger brother and oftentimes his nephew, he struggles to stand long enough to cook. “I can make a mean peanut butter sandwich — and some pancakes.”

So, Woods is grateful for Portland’s nascent and unique program: Meals 4 Kids. Think Meals on Wheels, but for families instead of seniors.

“It feels good to know that there are people who actually care,” Woods says. “I think it’s beautiful.”

Begun officially June 1, 2014, the program sends staffers and volunteers on weekly visits to households like Woods’ to drop off prepared food.

Each pre-plated and nutritionally balanced meal comes ready for the microwave. Entrees such as meatloaf and fish come with a starch and a vegetable. The meals also come with a delivery of milk, bread and fruit. Each meal, including preparation, packaging and delivery, costs $4.38, of which 85 cents is paid for through Meals on Wheels People funding.

The rest, $3.53, is paid for through the Portland Children's Levy, which was last renewed in 2013. The levy disperses about $12 million for 60 programs in early childhood education, afterschool programs, child abuse prevention, foster care and hunger relief.

The idea for Meals 4 Kids came from Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the city’s housing bureaus and the Children’s Levy.

“It was a true brainstorm. One of those rare things,” Saltzman says. In thinking about how to tackle childhood hunger in the city, he wondered if The Meals on Wheels People could modify their program for kids.

“Having been over there before and seen their kitchen, I just realized they had a tremendous capacity,” Saltzman says. “I thought it would be a great marriage.”

Saltzman says the program is as much about hunger as it is about proper nutrition.

“I’ve gone out on the route and I just really feel there’s just a lot of kids who, just for one reason or another, just aren’t getting the food they should,” he says. “I think a lot of kids, for a variety of reasons, are not eating really nutritional meals.”

Families are referred to the program through 20 social service agencies, nonprofits and health clinics. The program primarily serves residents of color in East and North Portland who are making less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Qualifying heads of household tend to have a disability or other major impairment to their ability to access food or prepare meals at home for their children.

“Some of them have chronic health conditions, some of them physically can’t leave the house,” says Mary Gay Broderick, a spokeswoman for the Portland Children’s Levy.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Meals 4 Kids staffer Josh Hancock drops off prepared meals, milk, fruit and loaves of bread in Southeast Portland.

Program heading for 156,000 meals annually

The Meals on Wheels People, based in Multnomah Village in Southwest Portland, won the $1.36 million three-year grant in 2014 to offer the new social service.

Jessica Morris, director of the Meals 4 Kids program, says the program served 522 children and 310 caregivers in its first year. Having ramped up to nearly 3,000 meals a week, the program is on-track to reach its limit of 156,000 meals per year.

“We’re about at that place right now,” Morris says. “Unfortunately, we’ll probably have to move to a waiting list.”

The program is probably the largest of its kind in the nation.

“I guess you could say we’re pioneers,” Morris says, noting a program she heard of in Texas but “nothing that I’m aware of on the scale of what we’re doing.”

She says that for the families on Meals 4 Kids, food pantries or food stamps aren’t enough.

“This is filling the gap for people who need the additional support for preparing the meals,” Morris says, also noting that: “A number of our families have said that their children are actually eating vegetables which they never had before.”

The goal for the current year is to serve 625 children and 355 caregivers, but each family may receive a different quantity and type of food depending on their needs or cultural background.

Morris says her biggest challenge has been adapting the Meals on Wheels model to serve families. Volunteers with strong arms and spacious vehicles are hard to come by.

“The volume of meals that are going out are quite a bit larger,” she says. “It can get heavy.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Josh Hancock, a Meals 4 Kids staff driver, left, visits with client Ian Woods after dropping off prepared meals for Woods and his younger brother, while a county health worker looks on.

Good-hearted man

The program is also a way to check in with families every week to see if everything is OK. Meals 4 Kids staff driver Josh Hancock says on his route of about 13 stops a day, he is looking to see that conditions are improving — or any signs that the family isn’t doing so well, such as cleanliness or signs of child abuse.

“The process of assessment is ongoing,” Hancock says.

Woods says Hancock is a dedicated deliveryman and will even track him down at physical therapy appointments or alter his route to make sure he gets the meals.

“That’s a good-hearted man,” he says.

As Hancock starts to leave Woods’ apartment, he asks about a teenage nephew who regularly hangs around.

“Are you sure you don’t need any more meals?” Hancock asks. “We want to make sure you have what you need.”

Woods answers with a bit of hesitation. “Naw, I don’t want to take any more.”

He puts his hand on a stack of freshly delivered frozen dinners and smiles. “You know what? We’re good.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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