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If Wishes Came True, There Would Be No Hungry Children in America

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Message Mary Howe Kiraly
If Wishes Came True, There Would Be No Hungry Children in America

If you approach Cumberland, Maryland, from I-68 East, you will see the remnants of a once bustling city: the cluster of church steeples at the base of Washington Street, the imposing Western Maryland Train Station, and the tall brick buildings along Baltimore Street. You will catch glimpses of the closely built houses on narrow streets that lead downtown; and see the improvised backsides of the old mansions of the historic district. You may catch a glimpse of the Potomac River where it meets Wills Creek, confined to a functional but unattractive levee system built by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Much of the history of America can be captured in this panorama. The Narrows, in the distance, open on the first National Highway leading west. The coal that drove the industrial revolution came from surrounding mountains or passed through Cumberland's network of railroads. The terminus of the C&O Canal is just beneath the highway overpass. It was constructed to carry coal to Washington; but was obsolete by the time it was completed. Trains took the coal east, and brought the White House's laundry to Cumberland to be drycleaned. Even before the first highway had been built, or the canal dug, or the railroads lain, George Washington had his first command at Fort Cumberland, during the French Indian Wars. It was also in Cumberland that he made his last appearance in uniform.

What you will not see from the Interstate are the hungry children. Hungry children are part of the legacy of a changed American landscape.

Emmanuel Episcopal Church sits atop the mound that was Fort Cumberland. It was here in 2001, that a group of concerned volunteers, working through the Church's outreach program, began to address the needs of Cumberland's hungry children. They have been joined by Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, and receive assistance from the Chapel Hill Association. Volunteer coordinators from Social Services and Livingston Church of the Brethren also help in this effort. Managing the Summer Lunchbox Program with too few funds, but a great deal of determination and compassion, they try to reach out to Cumberland's hungry children. In the summer, when the heat and humidity combine with the smog from the interstate to settle in a hazy cloud on the valley, the need is the greatest. Many of the children qualify for subsidized lunch programs when school is in session. But in the summer, the children are often left to fend for themselves, or to go hungry.

Becky Millar, a member of Emmanuel Parish, organized the School Lunchbox Program. Before retiring, Becky served as a school principal. In that capacity in the 1970s, she became aware that children, who received subsidized or free meals at school, often lost weight over summer vacation. She could even see a difference when these children returned from Christmas vacation. Becky confirmed her observations by having the school nurse weigh the children before and after vacations. It was apparent that hunger was affecting their growth. How could it not be affecting their ability to learn? But there was no government agency with a program to meet the needs of all hungry children.

While children who live in subsidized housing units do receive assistance, there has never been a federally funded program to address the broad scope of child hunger in America, in the summer. Parents who qualify for food stamps do not receive increased allotments when their children are not being fed at school.

Becky has dedicated herself to addressing the issue of summer hunger among children. For six weeks this summer, up to two hundred children received a nutritious lunch four days a week. In a separate program, children who received lunch in a city-sponsored Day Camp were also provided with breakfast each morning for eight weeks. There is no proselytizing or religious component to this effort. The goal is to have children feel no obligation or stigma for receiving this assistance.

In 2001, when the program began, there were four City playgrounds where children could be reached. This year, there was one remaining playground site. As Becky Millar says, "Kids can't vote." It complicates the outreach effort.

Community organizations have stepped in to provide three additional lunch distribution sites: at a church, a school, and a park. A fourth site, and the one reaching the most children, is provided by the owners of "Kids Korner," a second hand clothing store. The women who own Kids Korner became aware that children were roaming the streets in summer. Kids Korner provides a table and chairs for the children and an umbrella for shade. Becky Millar says that Kids Korner is the equivalent of a "safe house" for these children.

While flyers were circulated when the program began, children have largely found the distribution sites on their own. Volunteers meet the vans at the distribution sites, and finish assembling the lunches, then distribute them to the waiting children. Some children ask for extra sandwiches for siblings at home. SLP makes one hundred extra sandwiches each day to fill this need- and to provide extra nourishment for teenagers. Since playgrounds have been closed, children have no place to sit and eat their lunches, so they sit along available surfaces, or disappear with their bags. Becky laments that there are no organized activities for children at these sites.

But there is an effort to provide a "huge" lunch. Summer Lunchbox Program pays the School Board to provide sandwiches, which are packed in large coolers. Volunteers begin arriving at the church by 8:30 a.m. to receive deliveries of juice, to wash and prepare fresh fruits and vegetables, and to pack individual bags. Each bag contains individual packets of fruits and vegetables, a salty snack, a dessert, a napkin, and utensil. The bags are placed in boxes to be delivered to distribution sites along with coolers containing sandwiches and juice. As many as eight hundred sandwich bags are used each day. By 11:30 the lunches are ready to pack into a large van provided by Allegany County, and into private cars and trucks, for delivery. Volunteers spend another hour, or more, cleaning up and preparing for the next day.

At noon, the children are lined up and waiting at the distribution sites. When the van approaches, the children often begin clapping.

On Fridays, the City Parks and Recreation Department provides transportation to take the children, from the one remaining playground site, swimming at Constitution Park. Summer Lunchbox Program pays the dollar admission to the pool, and provides swimsuits to the children who need them. SLP also pays the vendor, who provides lunch for paying children in the Park's Day Camp program, to provide the same picnic lunch to the children from the playground.

This is a courageous effort by people who stayed to build lives in a city, in a country, that was changing. It says a great deal about the people Americans have become, and the values that they cherish- and about what was left behind. The Summer Lunchbox Program holds a message, perhaps hidden from the people in their air-conditioned SUVs, hurrying along the interstate to vacation homes at the lake.

The Summer Lunchbox Program
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 16 Washington Street, Cumberland, Maryland 21502.
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Mary Howe Kiraly is a voting activist living in Maryland.
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