photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

I Didn't Have Dinner Last Night

No child should go hungry in America. That’s why the school lunch program was developed—to make sure children have access to affordable meals and the nutrition they need to be able to grow into healthy adults. But what happens when those children go home at the end of the day, or for the weekend?

Teachers at Portland, Oregon, area schools say that some kids and their families are at risk for hunger – especially on Saturdays and Sundays – even with the free breakfast and lunch program during the week. An article on the 100Neighborhoods website quotes one of those teachers saying, “It is sad to hear kids sometimes say, I didn’t have dinner last night or they come in with two breakfasts. I ask them are you going to eat both breakfasts and they say ‘yes’ I didn’t have dinner last night and they’re kind of embarrassed and quiet, but they know that they have food…they know that for sure when they come to school they’re going to have at least two meals.” But on the weekends, these children can, and often, do go hungry. High unemployment and a tough economy forced record numbers of Oregonians to turn to emergency food last year. According to a study conducted by Oregon State University, the number of adult males receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, once known as the food stamp program) increased by 73 percent from 2005 to 2009, and twice as many two-partner households received assistance.

The USDA estimates that nearly 17 million U.S. children are considered at risk of hunger at some time during each school year. The American Federation of Teachers reports that “the problem has worsened over the last year of economic recession.”

In response to this enormous need, the Oregon Food Bank teamed with local government, businesses, faith communities, and agencies – including Catholic Charities – and the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) program to open six school-based food pantry sites in the Portland area. Families who come to these pantries receive fresh vegetables and fruit, milk, eggs, bread and other miscellaneous groceries totaling 30 to 40 pounds, or about six bags of food. The pilot program, which began in March, is already showing progress. One of the schools is already serving more than two dozen families each week.

Food pantries co-located with schools. It’s a simple idea that is making a difference because a community dared to think and act anew.