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Hunger Summit Addresses Needs of Kids

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By Roy Wenzl

Published by The Wichita Eagle, July 5, 2009

The recession has hurt Wichita’s poor people and their children much harder and faster than social service agencies predicted when it started last year, food charities say. Agencies that track poverty are compiling rapidly rising statistics about Wichita children going hungry, prompting the Wichita Community y Foundation to call a July 13 summit of local leaders to figure out how to feed them.

“We wanted to take a leadership role in this,” said Rob Allison, president of the community foundation. “We’ve been hearing from people that the supply of food is available, but that some children aren’t getting it.”The Kansas Food Bank recently created a statistical snapshot of hunger in Wichita – one that shows gaps in service to the poorest people in the community:

  • About 7,000 Wichita children live in households making less than half the poverty rate (about $9,000 for a family of three).
  • During the school year, 32,000 children receive free or subsidized school lunches. But the school’s summer feeding program reaches only about 2,000 – leaving 30,000 to find food elsewhere.
  • There are nearly 40 food pantries in Wichita, but distribution hours are varied and limited. There are a half-dozen meal programs, but none except the Lord’s Diner operates daily.
  • While food stamps are available to low-income families, nearly 40 percent who are eligible don’t apply.

Need is rising

As the economy has worsened, food charities have seen more people seeking assistance. In the year ending June 30, 2008, the food bank handed out 6.6 million pounds of food to the pantries it supplies in Wichita and statewide. A year later, in the same period, it handed out 7.5 million pounds to keep pace with the need. Brian Walker, the food bank president, is worried because it has usually taken up to two years in past recessions before the numbers of the poor and hungry significantly increase.

 This time, need is coming fast, he said.

 Others say the same.

 The number of children coming into the Lord’s Diner every night has jumped 32 percent over last year.

 The school district this year found nearly 1,900 children who meet federal education guidelines for homelessness – nearly 1,000 more than last year.

 Statewide, the number of children defined as homeless has jumped from 5,000 to 7,000 since last year. The increase is mostly due to the recession, said Tate Toedman, the Kansas State Department of Education’s coordinator for the education of homeless children and youth.

 Toedman said many of those children go hungry and that churches, local governments and aid agencies have had to step up food drives and other actions to stave off a possible crisis.

 “We see a lot of children who regularly wonder where their next meal is coming from,” Toedman said.

 “Churches that used to do food drives once every two to three months are now doing them once a month.”

 There are a number of agencies that feed children, including government, charities and other groups, said Allison, of the Community Foundation.

 “We thought we should get everybody around a table to talk about what barriers might exist and how we might be able to overcome them.”

 At the summit, the foundation will bring its board together with represen tatives from the agencies that deal with hunger and look for new solutions, said Carol Nazar, the foundation’s program director.

 They want to end up with specific ideas: pilot programs, for example, exploring how to better deliver food and services.

 It’s possible that the foundation will consider awarding grants to attack these problems, Nazar said.

 Among the agencies the foundation has invited are the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Communities in Schools, the city of Wichita, the Wichita Police Department, the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services , and many charities that help bring food to the poor.

 Stories of hardship

 Stories of hunger in the city abound, say those who work with the hungry. They share notes written by hungry children and by those who work with them at schools and food charities.

 One such note, written by staff at Linwood Elementary School, is typical of the hunger the Food Bank has encountered as the recession worsened, Walker said.

 “One of our kindergarten students was stealing food from his classroom,” the note said. “He would take food from the other students and snacks off the teacher’s desk.” The school gave the boy the food he needed, but made sure he rationed it. “We allowed the student to eat one item . . . each afternoon before going home because the student was very anxious about not having anything to eat,” the staff wrote.

In another case, a sixth-grader told of eating ramen noodles and Vienna sausages, when she ate at all:

“My mom works very hard to support our family . . . (but) some days we would eat only once a day,” she wrote. “Then Mom got her paycheck and we were really happy but then the bills started coming and we couldn’t buy food because a house was more important. We would rather have a house to live in and we needed a car.”

Those stories are likely to become more typical as layoffs and cutbacks continue in the area.

The Lord’s Diner on Tuesday set a record for most people served in one night: 613, with 98 of them children – many more than the 40 they averaged every night last year.

Overall, the total number of children and adults seeking help at the Lord’s Diner is up 17 percent over last year.

“We’re seeing a lot more babies, a lot more 2- to 5-year-olds, and we’re seeing more extended families come in here,” said Wendy Glick, director of the diner.

What that probably means, she said, is that people are sharing living arrangements, bringing multiple generations under one roof.

“We ran out of high chairs,” she added. “We had 15, so we bought five more. The high chairs and booster seats are now always full.”

Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.