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There is such a thing as a free lunch

Bonamici tours St. Helens meal services where 400 get hot lunch every weekday


by: MARK MILLER - Barb Weaver (left) greets teenagers at McCormick Park, where she hands out snacks and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as part of the St. Helens School District's summer food service program, as U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (center) looks on.One of the St. Helens School District’s less-publicized programs received some special attention Monday, July 21, as U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici came to McCormick Park to see the district’s summer food service program.

Beginning the week after school lets out for the summer, until midway through August, the school district offers free meals to children Mondays through Fridays. The idea behind the program is to continue serving the children of low-income families during summer break, when students eligible for a free or reduced school lunch are not being fed in school cafeterias.

Bonamici said the St. Helens program was the first summer food program she has seen.

Congress should commit to funding food assistance in public schools, she said, but it should also address the root cause.

“We can have policies that make sure that programs like this get funding,” Bonamici said. “Importantly, we need policies that grow the economy so we can start reducing hunger among students and the families.”

Misty Crawford, the school district’s nutrition director, said the district has a high enough rate of students eligible for a free or reduced school lunch that it is eligible for federal funding for its summer food program.

The program serves lunch to about 400 people each day at McCormick and Campbell parks, as well as breakfast to about 20 at Lewis & Clark Elementary School in the Houlton neighborhood, and has just started providing lunch for an English language learning class at the Sycamore View Apartments in Scappoose, she said.

Anyone between the ages of 1 and 18 eats free. Adults who bring three or more children can receive a free meal, or else pay $2 for a meal.

Crawford said the program is paid for by federal dollars and is operated efficiently enough to break even at the end of every summer, neither losing nor making money for the school district.

“You pretty much start with nothing and end with nothing,” Crawford laughed. “That’s all we work for is just to break even — and reach the kids and the families that need us. That’s what it’s all about, is to reach the people that need us.”

Still, there are obstacles.

The school district would like to offer free breakfasts in more than one location, as it does with lunches, but Crawford said “logistics and staffing” limit it to operating the breakfast part of the summer program only at Lewis & Clark.

by: MARK MILLER - The aged, paint-spattered van used by the St. Helens School District to bring food to and from McCormick Park for its summer food service program. Misty Crawford, director of nutrition, said the district receives no funding to buy new vehicles for the program.The summer food program also relies on old vehicles, such as the battered van at McCormick Park on Monday, which longtime food server Barb Weaver said predates her involvement in the program.

“With our old vehicles, they’re antiquated, and there are no funds to purchase new vehicles,” Crawford told Bonamici on Monday. The federal funding for the food service program does not include money for transportation, she said.

Crawford said she also hopes to expand the summer program’s operations in Scappoose to serve more people than just the ELL class at the Sycamore View Apartments. Many of the complex’s residents are Latino farmworkers and their families, who typically have limited income.

At McCormick Park on Monday, there was a steady flow of children and their guardians stopping by for a hot meal. The program offered a choice of baked chicken or taquitos, as well as apples, chocolate milk, fruit-flavored snacks, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and water to supplement the hot lunch.

Bonamici, a Democrat who is seeking her second full term of office this year, called the program “a good investment” and said she supports it. But, she said, congressional backing for programs like the one in St. Helens is not guaranteed.

“There are many people who have a position that this is not something that the government should do, that it should be done by communities, or the faith community,” Bonamici said. “And I have to say that nonprofits and faith communities do what they can. But there’s still a need.”

Bonamici added, “We all expect our students to be educated and meet high standards. They don’t learn as well if they’re not fed, and if they’re hungry, their minds don’t work the same.”