Soup's not on

A hungry summer ahead for some Atlanta kids

For many children, the end of the school year also means the end of regular, healthy meals.

Free or reduced-cost lunch and breakfast programs are often the only assurance that children will get nutritious meals each day. And this year, rising unemployment combined with mandatory cutoffs for welfare recipients could make for a particularly long, hot — and hungry — summer.

"You know how much growing children can eat," says Willie Parks. "I've got two 14-year-olds and two 12-year-olds — one girl and three boys — and those boys can eat. They go out and play ball and things, and when they come in and sit down they put a hurtin' on some food."

Parks, who turns 63 this week, depends on the school lunch program to help feed his grandchildren during most of the year. A widower who suffered a stroke six years ago and relies on disability payments to get by, the genial south Atlanta resident was left to raise the four children alone after his daughter died in 1993.

His numerous medications and rent "takes pretty much everything I get" to make ends meet, he says. So when school lets out for the summer, he's shuttling to various food programs and church pantries, trying to keep food on the table.

Sylvia Jones can empathize. The longtime Atlanta Public Schools employee and mother of two honor students was forced two years ago to leave work to battle with liver cancer. For her, the school break means making some tough choices.

"What I do with what money I have is, take it and stretch it and look out for the summer. Basically, I set up a budget to make sure I can take care of all three meals, and stretch my food." How much of her income goes to support her family? "Basically, most all of it," she says quietly.

Parks and Jones are far from alone.

According to the state Department of Education, 611,015 Georgia students received free or reduced-price meals during the regular school year. In the Atlanta Public Schools, 44,801 children received such meals — more than half of all students attending class. When the school year ends, a variety of programs attempt to provide food for many of those children. Last year, 90,049 Georgia children received summer meals, up from 85,888 children in 1998, according to federal figures.

Those rising figures are just part of the story.

"The summer's really detrimental for poor children, for a number of reasons," says Sandra Robertson, executive director of the Georgia Citizens Coalition on Hunger. "Even in poor schools, there's structure, a place to be that's relatively safe, and there are adult figures that children can rely on. During the summer, it frequently changes dramatically: Regular meals are few or non-existent. The need to provide an extra meal or two for a child can be an extra burden on some families."

But this summer may be worse than usual. Under federal welfare reform legislation enacted in 1996, a lifetime limit of four years was placed on payments of benefits. On Dec. 31, 2000, recipients began being forced off the rolls, including nearly 1,500 Georgia families. Although most of those were able to win a temporary reprieve, many did not; in the meantime, more families are cut each month.

Government officials say other avenues, such as the federal Food Stamp program, are available to keep such families from falling through the cracks. In reality, however, such programs have fallen short: A General Accounting Office report on that program, for instance, found that Food Stamp participation dropped nearly 28 percent between 1996 and 1998. During the same period, Census Bureau figures show, the U.S. poverty rate dropped less than 5 percent.

And the country has been slow to use public money retained as welfare rolls are slashed. According to February report by the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, the states collectively socked away some $8 billion in unspent federal funds. Despite the promises of welfare reformers that such money would be targeted for things like job training and child care for the working poor, the funds have been otherwise used or been left unspent. In Georgia, the report said, $197 million in welfare funds has gone unused.

Toss in the effects of a faltering economy, and the summer is poised to zap some families with a triple-whammy.

"Between welfare reform and people being cut off or shifted into low-income jobs, the situation is even more unstable for so many," Robertson says. "At least, when they were getting a monthly check — no matter how small — there was some continuity. With a lot of these low-paying jobs, they may work 10 hours one week, 30 the next and none the next. ... The whole notion of public assistance is going out the window."

All this comes when the need for such assistance is on the rise. According to a report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, last year saw a 16 percent increase in emergency food requests from families over 1999.

That trend apparently is continuing into 2001 in Atlanta. Even though most summer programs are just beginning to crank up, some already are full.

"We're turning applicants away," says Nina Mitchell of the Teens at Work program, which provides meals and afternoon snacks for a group of East Point kids.

At the Atlanta Children's Shelter, which provides day care and meals for the children of the homeless, Executive Director Jacqueline Brown says there's usually a springtime spike in the number of kids showing up. "We let the brothers and sisters of the smaller children come in with them when school's out," she says. This year, she says, "we're bracing for the effects" of a poor economy and welfare cutoffs.

Responding to pleas for help can be a tough task, particularly during the warmer months, according to the folks at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which helps supply nearly 100 local summer food programs.

"When the increase of food needed is at its worst in the summer, that's when we have our drought," says Sabina Carr, Food Bank spokeswoman. This year, in addition to the customary seasonal drop-off in donations, she says, a tough economy is adding another twist to the expected impact of welfare reform.

"We've been planning for a few years for the welfare changes," she says. "For one thing, the Food Bank is trying to get our donations and food purchases up as much as possible. Another is to start creating programs to get people back to work."

From Parks' vantage point, things look a bit uncertain. Well-informed on current events, he's aware that things may be a little tougher this year than usual. Still, he's never come up empty during his treks to the church pantries or over to the Hunger Coalition, and he's hopeful that he'll still be able to keep food on the table.

"So far, I've been fortunate," he says. "I guess I'll cross that bridge when I come to it, but I haven't been turned down yet. It just seems like everything's going haywire."??