A family’s home address can dictate whether their kids get government help with food.
There are rural school districts in Oregon - where there’s no free lunch. But in lots of places, needy students can get free lunch and breakfast. And Portland’s now starting to provide free dinners, too.
Jessica Morris is with Meals on Wheels. She’s delivering frozen entrees, milk, and vegetables to Avoka Tavila and her five kids.
Tavila’s two oldest are at school this morning, but it’s a full house.
“I have three at home and these are my niece and nephew. My husband’s sister’s kids,” Tavila says.
Avoka Tavila’s husband works days. She works nights - and takes classes.
“I go to school at ITT Tech. I’m graduating next year, with a networking, administrative service degree.”
The Tavilas are the kind of family that officials had in mind when the Portland Children’s Levy contracted with Meals on Wheels, for $1.3 million.
City commissioner Dan Saltzman chairs the children’s levy committee that funded Meals on Wheels to take its meal-delivery to older people, and expand it to families in poverty.
“Could be Mom working the graveyard shift and doesn’t have the means, or transportation or mobility to go to a food pantry,” Saltzman explains. “And it’s also designed to deal with the one meal of the day that for many kids is often the biggest question mark - and that’s supper, or dinner.”
But if the question mark is dinner, delivering food to the doorstep isn’t the only answer.
The Oregon Food Bank is getting money to expand its school-based pantries - from seven to 18 schools, over the next three years.
Mill Park Elementary in outer southeast opened its pantry this fall, in a converted office. Fresh apples and carrots, beans and onions pack the shelves, and there’s more in a refrigerator.
Many of the couple dozen families served in its first few weeks aren’t native English speakers, like the Calderons.
Ninth grader, Melanie interprets for her mom, Artencia. “It’s good, and really a good help for everyone and stuff.”
Food bank spokeswoman Myrna Jensen says it’s a low-cost approach. “With our school-based pantries, our cost is about 48 cents per meal.” But the food bank doesn’t prepare “meals” - so that estimate is really based on pounds of food.
Meals on Wheels prepares and delivers meals to homes – and is more expensive. The levy pays about $2.70 a meal. But that’s not a fair comparison, says commissioner Dan Saltzman.
“Looking at that is sort of like looking at how much does it cost you to prepare a meal if you go to the store and buy your food and prepare it yourself, versus ordering a prepared meal.”
Meals on Wheels interviews families to make sure they’re struggling financially - and face barriers in acquiring and cooking their own food.
For Tavila, who works graveyard, time is an issue. “When I get home from work then I prepare breakfast for them. It’s not a big deal. They love oatmeal or cereal. But for lunch, I need the time to rest,” She says.
Is the higher expense of Meals on Wheels worth it?
“I’m sort of waiting - I think the jury is out on it,” says Patti Whitney-Wise who directs Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.
“It’s a very interesting model to take a look at, and see whether in fact, there is a subset of families who are hungry, where this really is a better model than what we have in place otherwise.”
Officials in the non-profit and government ranks agree that feeding struggling families takes a variety of strategies —- pantries, financial assistance, and quite possibly, delivering dinner to a family’s door.