Feeding Hungry Kids

SARA ENGRAM

August 23, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM

It's summertime, but the livin' ain't easy.

In Maryland, people are going hungry. Not Somalia, not Bosnia, but Maryland, a state that generally ranks among the more affluent regions of the Land of Plenty.

Church pantries and community food programs are reporting bare cupboards, and that is unusual this time of year. Even though summer means a drop in food donations, it also usually brings a drop in demand. Instead, community food programs are now seeing a sharp increase in the number of people seeking help.

Food bank officials cite a number of reasons for the increase. The economy is still sour, unemployed workers are exhausting their jobless benefits and children who get free lunches and breakfasts during the school year are still at home, putting an additional strain on already-thin food budgets. And, as is the case year 'round, toward the end of the month inadequate food stamp allotments begin to run out.

Reports of the shortage have touched the community's generosity, and a number of organizations are operating emergency food drives this week. Those efforts will help to relieve the current crisis. But hunger is a stubborn problem and, as essential as they are, emergency food drives are not a long-term solution.

In fact, there isn't any single solution to hunger -- other than achieving a just society. Meanwhile, it's important to pay attention to all the less-than-perfect solutions that can help to make a difference.

One of those solutions made the news recently because of the lost opportunities it represents. Earlier this month, the non-profit Food Research Action Center released a survey showing that a federal summer food program for low-income children is vastly under-used.

Operated by the Department of Agriculture, the Summer Food Service Program for Children is designed to fill the nutrition gap for children who qualify for breakfast and lunch programs when school is in session. Nationally, of 12 million low-income students who received free or subsidized school lunches in 1991, only 1.8 million participated in the summer food program. That's only 15 percent.

Maryland does better than the national average, with programs serving almost 20 percent of eligible children. But what about the others? Many of them live in homes where the current crisis at church food pantries and community food banks translates into bare plates and empty stomachs.

Maryland's program is certainly not the least effective in the nation, but it's a long shot from being the best. For that honor we need look only next door to Delaware, where the summer food program reaches almost 70 percent of eligible children -- far and away the highest percentage in the country.

What's the secret? I called Nancy H. Ford of the state's Department of Public Instruction to find out. She has overseen the state's efforts for 15 years, and Delaware's secret is no secret at all -- hard work, attention to details, lots of planning meetings and hand-holding sessions with program sponsors and creative approach to federal requirements.

Existing day camps or recreation programs with enough low-income participants can qualify for federal reimbursement -- if they can find their way through the required paperwork. Ms. Ford guides the directors through the maze of red tape.

For instance, no child is allowed to carry food away from the site, not even an apple or a cookie. This may sound stingy, but Ms. Ford stresses the practical reasons for the requirement, such as the need to make sure that children don't irritate the surrounding community by strewing litter as they leave.

She holds close-out meetings at the end of the summer so sponsors can trade operating tips. She also teaches them the importance of building good relationships with other departments or agencies so that things run smoothly. She takes phone calls at all hours.

After all, success is in the details -- and in the extra effort she puts forth to find creative ways of reaching hungry children.

In rural areas of the state, Ms. Ford seeks out sponsors to operate mobile programs. In some cases vehicles travel to a site and the children gather round, sitting on mats or pillows. Along with lunch, they get a lesson on good nutrition. In other words, if there is no existing program for children she creates a nutrition education program, which qualifies for federal reimbursement.

That's the secret of a 70 percent participation rate -- a dedicated bureaucrat, working hard for a family value we can all agree on: making sure children don't go hungry in America.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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