Our View: Don’t let them go hungry | SteamboatToday.com

Our View: Don’t let them go hungry

— It was both heartwarming and heart wrenching to learn last week about the efforts of school nurse Dot Haberlan and others associated with Routt County's public school districts to provide snacks for the increasing number of students who are going to school with empty stomachs.

Although it's certainly true that some kids are hungry because they choose to not eat breakfast, there's also evidence that others simply aren't being provided consistent meals at home. Sometimes that means a child comes to school without having eaten a meal since the previous day's school lunch.

School officials say they're doing the best they can with limited resources to provide snacks to those children. And programs like the federal free and reduced lunch plans provide qualifying families with affordable, guaranteed hot lunches for their kids.

What happens before and after the school day is another story, and local statistics underscore the magnitude of the issue: more local families need help putting food on the table.

Routt County's Department of Human Services is the local distributor of the statewide food assistance program. Last month, the department helped 300 Routt County households qualify for $74,464 in food assistance. Just 11 months ago, in February 2009, the number was 166 households and $30,445. The county's food assistance caseload increased by 135 percent from 2008 to 2009 — the largest county-level increase in the state.

But income thresholds in the state program mean some families who need help don't qualify. Routt County's high cost of living isn't factored into the eligibility requirements. A family of four, for example, can't qualify for food assistance if its monthly gross income is more than $2,389, or $28,668 a year.

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For those residents, LIFT-UP of Routt County is the only other local option. The nonprofit organization operates the local food bank network, and it also has experienced increased caseloads coinciding with the economic downturn. In 2007, LIFT-UP's food banks provided local families with 5,794 food bags valued at $23 a bag. In 2008, that number ballooned to 8,092 food bags. In 2009, it further jumped to 9,321 food bags. In total, the demand has doubled since 2006, Executive Director David Freseman said.

LIFT-UP, as a private organization, has more flexibility in how it distributes aid. In general, the group will provide food assistance to anyone making as much as 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $44,100 annually for a family of four. Families that meet requirements can receive two food bags per person per household every quarter. Freseman said folks in more severe situations could receive additional food on a temporary basis.

But how do we make sure local children are getting the consistent, healthy meals that are so important to their developing bodies and minds? Steamboat Springs Superintendent Shalee Cunningham said the district uses "wrap-around services," meaning there's a strong referral network between the school system and local agencies such as mental health, LIFT-UP and juvenile diversion programs. Relying on the school's Visiting Nurse Association-contracted nurses as well as school staff, Cunningham thinks it's an effective way of preventing cases from slipping through the cracks.

Nevertheless, we think there's more the community can do to help its struggling members. We urge you to consider the following ways:

■ Donate money to the parent information committees at any local school. If you desire, stipulate that the funds be used to purchase food.

■ Help LIFT-UP restock its shelves. Freseman said high-protein foods such as peanut butter and canned tuna are ideal. Spaghetti sauce, canned fruit and rice also are constant needs. Although LIFT-UP was flooded with food donations during holiday-season drives, this is one of the most challenging times of year to keep the shelves stocked because fewer donations are made.

■ Refer friends and others in need to the Department of Human Services to apply for the food assistance program. The same goes for free and reduced lunch programs at any public school.

It doesn't matter how or why local families find themselves in a position where it's difficult to put meals on the table. What matters, and what will define us as a community, is how we respond to the challenge.