Prevent child hunger: Spread the word about summer meal programs

This month, high school seniors across our region are graduating. Schools across our region are closing their doors for the summer.

Those are moments to be celebrated – except for children who rely on free- and reduced-price lunches during the school year, but have difficulty accessing nutritious meals and snacks during the hot summer months.

Some summer meal programs have already begun operating, and by Monday, the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission’s 101 summer meal sites will be open to youth in low-income communities. But despite these efforts, and others by area school districts and non-profit organizations, thousands of kids in California who rely on meals during the school year could be at risk of going hungry this summer.

For example, for every 100 children who relied on the National School Lunch Program during the 2009-10 school year, just 18.8 kids participated in a summer nutrition program, according to the Food Research and Action Center’s new report, ‘Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation.’

(The California Food Policy Advocates is expected to release county-level data on participation in summer nutrition programs on June 15.)

To raise awareness of the importance of summer meals, this week has become the first-ever ‘National Summer Food Service Program Week,’ with the theme, “Food That’s in When School is Out!”

Spread the word about summer lunch programs – and share these hotlines, which help people locate the summer meal site closest to their home, and access additional food assistance information: 1-866-3-HUNGRY or 1-877-8-HAMBRE.

Last summer, Vida en el Valle ran an in-depth series on the importance of summer nutrition programs. Read the accompanying blogs here:

The top community health stories of 2010

In a previous post, I declared December the time for making resolutions for the New Year.

December is also the time for making lists: gift lists, In/Out lists, and, in this case, lists of the top news of the year.

Below is my list of the top community health stories of the year. (Click here to read the version that ran in the Dec. 29 edition of Vida.)

I’m sure there are more local health issues that should be recognized in this list – so feel free to add your voice in the comments section below!

1. Kettleman City gets attention
Last year, Kettleman City residents were begging for state officials to investigate the rash of birth defects in their majority Latino community of about 1,500 people.

In January, the community’s concerns finally got the attention of state officials, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzengger ordered the state Department of Public Health and state Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the birth defects in the tiny Kings County community.

In November, the state agencies released the results of their investigation, and said there was no common cause for the at least 11 babies born with birth defects between 2007 and March of this year.

Kettleman City residents and activists hope that is not the end of the state’s investigation into the community’s health crisis.

“I feel that they need to continue the investigation, and it needs to be more thorough,” community member Maricela Mares-Alatorre said. “They need to find out actually why the birth defects happen, so people can continue to have babies without fear.”

2. Whooping cough hits state’s Latino community hard
This year, there were 7,824 cases of pertussis — or whooping cough — reported between Jan. 1 and Dec. 15. That was the most cases reported in 63 years, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Latinos were hit hardest by the whooping cough epidemic this year. Nine of the 10 infants who died from pertussis were Latino.

There is no conclusive evidence explaining why Latino infants have been particularly hard hit by the pertussis epidemic. But pediatric disease experts suggest that since Latino infants tend to live with large, multi-generational families, they might have more chances to catch the disease from relatives or caretakers.

3. State’s epic budget impasse causes community clinics to struggle
Community health clinics across the San Joaquín Valley struggled to keep their doors open this fall as the governor and state legislature sat at an impasse over the state budget for a record 100 days.

The state government did not reimburse clinics for Medi-Cal payments during that gridlock, denying clinics 50 to 80 percent of their revenues. During that time, some clinics were forced to chop their operating hours or lay off staff.

“We are the safety net for health,” Harry Foster, president and CEO of Family HealthCare Network, said at that time. “We’re drowning, and no one pays attention to us.”

4. A new face of hunger in the Valley
As the San Joaquin Valley economy withered and unemployment rates remained stagnant, food banks across the region reported providing food to people that never before had needed it.

“The face of hunger has changed,” said Mike Mallory, CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank, which serves Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. “It could be a relative, a friend, a co-worker, a next door neighbor – they people that you least expect.”

In response, the Community Food Bank in Fresno held its largest food distribution ever in September.

During the event, about 650 volunteers distributed about 1.275 million pounds of food to residents of Fresno, Kings, and Madera counties.

“This is one day when nobody in the Central Valley should say they’re going without food,” said Dayatra Latin, director of programs and development for the Community Food Bank.

5. White House focuses on childhood obesity
First Lady Michelle Obama cast a national spotlight on the country’s childhood obesity epidemic when she kicked off the ‘Let’s Move’ campaign in February.

But a movement to end childhood obesity began in the San Joaquin Valley long ago.

This year, the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program and other community groups did some awesome work this year to improve access to healthy foods, and create safe places to play, in Valley communities.

For example, parents from John Burroughs Elementary School established a joint-use agreement with the Fresno Unified School District, ensuring the community’s children had a safe place to play after school hours and on the weekends.

What are the emerging health issues for 2011?
I think unincorporated communities – like the Stanislaus County community of Parklawn – are going to be a major news story in 2011.

Organizations like California Rural Legal Assistance and PolicyLink are already doing great work to bring health, infrastructure, and environmental justice to see these small, voiceless communities, and there is definitely more to come.

Masssive event to ‘Feed Hope’

This Saturday, the Community Food Bank will hold the largest food distribution it’s ever held, according to Dayatra Latin, the food bank’s director of programs and outreach.

The massive food distribution, held in conjunction with Hunger Action Month, will be at the Mosqueda Center in Fresno from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Latin said the food bank has enough food to feed about 20,000 people.

“This is one day nobody in the Central Valley should say they’re going without food,” Latin said.

food dist

Everybody should participate in this event.

  • If you and your family suffer from food insecurity, the food bank invites you to attend this “car distribution.” Just come to the Mosqueda Center – no earlier than 6 a.m. – with space in your car, a good attitude, and a bottle of water.
  • If you and your family have TIME to give, the food bank will need about 600 volunteers to help distribution more than one million pounds of food on Saturday. So far, about 300 people have agreed to donate their time.
  • If you and your family have MONEY to donate, the food bank needs help covering the costs of this event, and providing food and resources at future events. Latin said every $1 donated equals $8 of food.
  • If you MISS this event, you’ll have another opportunity to help combat hunger in our community. On October 14, during the Big Fresno Fair’s “Feed the Need” drive, people who donate four cans of food will gain free entrance into the fair. The event will benefit the food bank and the Salvation Army.

As Latin said, “hunger is an everyday disaster.” This Saturday is one day where you can obtain food – or ensure that others in your community have food for a day.

To read Vida’s past stories about hunger, click here.

Planting the seeds of health

“Who will be the driving force for a garden at your school?”

That is one question filmmaker Robert Lee Grant poses toward the end of his thought-provoking 31-minute film, ‘Nourishing the Kids of Katrina – The Edible Schoolyard.’

The award-winning film documents how a community garden helped revitalize a New Orleans school after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. In the 1/3-acre organic garden – (there is a similar one in Berkeley, and both are spearheaded by  Alice Waters) – low-income children stick their hands in the dirt and nurture and harvest crops. They learn to cook the fruits and vegetables they’ve grown, and connect their garden experiences to their academic courses.

It’s not hard to imagine edible schoolyards sprouting up across the San Joaquín Valley. In fact, many people said during a community discussion following the screening, we need community gardens to be incorporated into school curriculums.

For starters, the Valley has a rich tradition of agriculture, and the gardens could honor that. The Valley is home to so many diverse cultures and languages, and this could be reflected in the crops grown in school gardens, and the tools used in them, Grant said in a recent interview.

But beyond that, Valley families need the health education the gardens could provide.

As Edie Jessup of the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program reminded the audience before the film was screened last Thursday night, Valley residents suffer from serious poverty, hunger, obesity, and chronic health issues. So many people live in rural areas and work in agriculture, but don’t have access to region’s bountiful produce, she said.

In the school gardens, young Valley children would grow fruits and vegetables. They would get exercise from working in the garden, gain a connection to the land, and cultive relationships with their classmates. Valley kids would harvest their fruits and vegetables, and then learn to enjoy eating and cooking with them.

  • Just those simple steps could help create healthy habits for the kids, who would pass them on to their families. Over a lifetime, those healthy habits could help curb the alarming rate of childhood obesity in the Valley.

As Waters is known to say: “if they grow it, they’ll eat it.” Or as another public health expert said, “healthy choices should be easy, and unhealthy choices should be hard.”

So, who will be the driving force for an edible schoolyard in our community? Some communities – like Pixley, in Tulare County – have already planted the seeds of garden projects. But how do we turn these community gardens into a movement?

People could start by reaching out to their local schools and school boards. Grant says it’s easier to implement an edible schoolyard curriculum at charter schools, like Samuel J. Green in New Orleans – but they can be added to public schools, too.

For proof, Valley residents just need to look to Stockton, where Grant is in discussions about creating a community garden at Wilhelmina Henry Elementary School. Grant said a congressman and the local farm bureau are already behind the effort.

During an interview, Grant compared the healthy foods movement to the civil rights movement, in terms of how quickly its gaining momentum. Will you join the nutritious food scene, and ensure that all kids in their families have access to healthy foods, which will lead to healthier lives?

Photo taken by Daniel Cásarez in Pixley.