Philadephia Inquirer, June 16, 2008: Summertime’s no picnic for hunger-relief groups

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By Alfred Lubrano

Inquirer Staff Writer

Summer is the hungriest time in the Philadelphia area. And this season might be among the worst.

Most schools in the region, including Philadelphia’s, are closing this week, and tens of thousands of poor and working-poor children accustomed to free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches will be cut off.

Meanwhile, the brutal, hard-time economy could make parents’ ability to feed those kids themselves tougher than ever.

“We’re going to go hungry this summer in a way we’ve never seen before,” said Steveanna Wynn, executive director of the SHARE (Self-Help and Resource Exchange) Food Program, a nonprofit organization working to alleviate hunger in the city. “The issue of food for people in crisis has reached the perfect storm.”

Stressing his concern, Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger-relief organization, said: “We’re all scared to death. And we don’t see an end to this.”

To compensate for the free-lunch gap, parents typically crowd into food pantries every summer, but pantries have lower supplies because donors believe family food emergencies come dressed in winter boots, not summer sandals. They save their largesse for the holidays and colder months.

As a result, good weather masks bad times.

What exacerbates the problem this season is the still-floundering economy.

For fiscal 2008, Harrisburg cut $750,000 from the state budget for food pantries, $200,000 of it in Philadelphia, Wynn said. That equals 500,000 pounds of food not purchased locally this year, she added.

On top of that, the federal food-assistance program was slashed by about 20 percent – an additional 50,000 to 70,000 pounds of food gone.

For fiscal 2009, which will begin next month, state budget levels for pantries are to remain the same (a total of $18 million), which is tantamount to a reduction given $4-a-gallon gas and other costs.

Overall food costs are 10 to 30 percent higher than they were last year, Wynn added.

Because times are so tough, food pantries report seeing more people lately, straining supplies.

“More than half the clients are coming back more frequently, and that’s before schools close,” Clark said. “This is a serious social problem.”

Further, there aren’t enough summer camps or similar organizations to provide breakfasts and lunches, said Sydelle Zove, an advocate with the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. And, she added, many parents don’t know such sites are available.

“I dread the summer,” said Dar Hill, 50, a single mother of a 10-year-old boy in Darby. She takes home around $400 a week as a day-care worker.

“You wonder, ‘My goodness, am I going to have enough to provide for this child?’ ” she said. “During the school year, you have a sense of security. He’s getting his breakfast and lunch, and it’s a blessing. But now I’ll have to buy food for his breakfast and be sure he has a nutritious lunch, and I pray to God I have enough money to buy food until the next time I get paid.”

Around 140,000 students in Philadelphia are eligible for free and reduced breakfasts and lunches, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which runs the lunch program with state and federal funding. These include children at charter schools. (There are about 198,000 students in Philadelphia public schools, including charters.)

In Philadelphia Catholic schools, around 10,000 of the approximately 24,000 students receive free and reduced meals, said Anne Ayella, an assistant director at Nutritional Development Services, part of the archdiocese.

To qualify for free food, a family of four must make no more than $27,400 a year (about $525 a week), which is 130 percent of the federal poverty level. For reduced meals, a family of four can’t exceed $39,200 (about $750 a week), which is 185 percent of poverty. A reduced meal costs 40 cents or less.

This summer, more than 80,000 children are scheduled to be served free lunches, free breakfasts or both at day camps run by Nutritional Development Services, the Philadelphia Department of Recreation, and the Philadelphia Housing Authority. In addition, the school district serves free and reduced-price food to eligible children in summer school.

“If lunches weren’t free in the summer, it would just kill my budget,” said Vanessa Younger, 45, a North Philadelphia data processor whose 9-year-old son, Nysiem, eats free lunch in a local day camp.

A typical meal for a Philadelphia child in the program is a turkey sandwich, a half-pint of low-fat milk, and fruit or a vegetable, such as carrots.

“I couldn’t afford to give him lunch all summer,” Younger said. “He rips and runs all day and is hungry all the time.”

But while children like Nysiem get help, 70,000 or so who eat free or reduced meals in public and Catholic schools will soon be going without.

In the suburbs, there is even less help for children.

A few programs feed children in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties during the summer, but they reach only a relative handful of the thousands of students who qualify for free lunch, according to data from the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center in Harrisburg.

“What happens to these other kids?” asked Andrea Garrett, who administers a summer feeding program in Chester for 900 children. Around 15,600 Delaware County kids are eligible for free lunch during the school year. “I really don’t know.”

Food-program advocates say the infrastructure to feed needy kids in the suburbs during the summer doesn’t exist.

Conditions are similar in South Jersey, where nearly 70,000 students are eligible for free and reduced summer-feeding programs, advocates say.

Even parents who have a safe spot to place their children during the day find it difficult to feed them.

“The summer program I put my kids in has no lunch,” said Stephanie Coles, 29, an unmarried mother of three school-age children and a baby in Collingdale.

Coles, who makes $25,000 a year (around $480 a week) as a medical secretary, said skyrocketing gas prices alone nearly killed her budget. But then there are ever-more expensive groceries, not to mention utilities and insurance.

“So I figure I have to pay 15 percent more of my take-home pay for the lunches. It’s a burden and a big change when school ends and you’re used to those free lunches. I even have to buy them bottled water, because there’s only one fountain there.”

A partial solution for this crisis, advocates say, is more money in the state budget. That fight will play out this month.

But for now, people see the free-lunch gap as an abyss, and worry about children going hungry, defined by experts as the recurrent and involuntary lack of access to food. “It’s going to be a long summer,” Zove said.

Added Hill: “You want your child to be able to open the refrigerator and see there’s enough food. But sometimes it doesn’t happen.

“The hardest thing is to say no, especially when it comes to feeding a child.”

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or

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