Potluck in the Park: How School Works (or Doesn’t) (Dakota McMillan, Molly, Peterson, Carmen Seto, and Erin Tannenbaum)

foodscarcityThroughout the Portland State University 2014 summer term, our team of four Portland State University seniors conducted a PIC Team project based off of the theme, How School Works (or Doesn’t), with a specific focus on how food insecurity negatively affects student performance in schools.

During the academic school year, students who come from families in need can qualify for the Free or Reduced Lunch (FRL) program that is offered to students enrolled in the Portland Public School District. In order to qualify for reduced price meals in the Portland Public School District, a family of four must make no more than $44,123 annually. To qualify for free meals in the Portland Public School District, a family of four must make less than $31,005 annually. The other option to be found eligible for free or reduced lunches is if your family receives SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Student’s who are eligible for reduced price meals or free meals receive $1,000 per year in meal benefits.

According to Portland Public Schools, during the 2013-2014 school year 40,098 students in the Portland Public School District were enrolled in the Free or Reduced Lunch Program. However, what sparked our interest in this topic was the pondering question of what happens to these students from families in need during the summer when school is no longer in session, who rely on the access to a free meal each day throughout the school year? With that said, we wanted to explore what resources are available to those families and kids in need during the summer that will assist in the further progression of ones mental and physical development.

Nearly half of all students, 44.8%, enrolled in Portland Public Schools qualify for free-or-reduced lunches. This statistic highlights the importance to the issue of food insecurity and child hunger on student performance. The lack of a substantial or well-balance nutritional diet negatively impacts the development of the brain as well as reduces the success of a student’s academic performance. When school is out for the summer, many families struggle to provide meals to their families each day. Summer vacation exposes many of these students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches to the increased risk of hunger and developmental reduction.

To assist with the prevalent issue of food insecurity for families in need within the Portland Public School District, a partner program was created during the summer of 2013 to expand the free and reduced lunch program that provides free meals to children in schools, during the summer. Meals have been offered Monday through Friday to anyone ages 18-years-old and younger at local Portland parks by the Summer Food Service Program. This Summer Food Service Program is federally funded and receives donations from participating partners such as Opportunity Alliance, Healthy Portland, and Preble Street.

potluckBecause this program was not seeking volunteers for a time that was available for our group, we sought another opportunity to help raise awareness in the community of food insecurity. We wanted to explore what resources are available to those families and kids in need that aid in the contribution to their physical and mental development. The opportunity that arose for us to participate in was with the Hands on Greater non-profit organization, Potluck in the Park.

Potluck in the Park is a non-profit organization that has been going on for 23 years, never missing a Sunday event. Each Sunday from 3-5 p.m. at O’ Bryant Square, 50-volunteers from around the Portland-Metro area offer their services to help serve those in need. Meals provided by food donations from a local church and kitchen consisting of hot food, salad, fruit, dessert, and drinks are offered to the mere 400-600 individuals who receive the free meal each week.

One thing we noticed during our volunteer work was the lack of families and underrepresentation of children at the event. The percentage of children living below the poverty line in Portland is 22%. Donna Yellen of Preble Street’s Maine Hunger Initiative stated that, “Portland children are going hungry because eligible families do not know about the availability of the nutritious meals that are offered to them”. We hope that our assisting services helped make a difference in the lives on those in-need. We had the pleasure of working with this organization in an effort to help raise awareness of food insecurity and child hunger.

How can you get involved? The opportunities are endless!

  • Become a volunteer. Donate your food, money, or time. Spread the word.
  • Head on over to the Hands on Greater website today and volunteer!
  • Visit the Potluck in the Park website and sign-up to volunteer this Sunday!
  • Make a financial donation to local food banks!
  • Make a non-perishable food donation to local food pantries!
  • Spread the word about local events to provide meals for those in need!

We thank you for your time and hope to see you out there volunteering!


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