Summer brings hunger in suburbs There are fewer options to replace free school lunches.

Posted: July 09, 2008

Hunger lined up, quiet and orderly, in the summer heat of a Delaware County day.

Suburban women, many looking a decade older than their ages, awaited their turn to collect strawberries, bananas and bread being distributed by Philabundance, the hunger-relief agency, at a Delaware County Housing Authority building in Woodlyn.

Several of them, including Marisa Koerbel of Lower Merion, were there to plug the summer feeding gap - to find food for their children, who usually get free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches in schools now closed for summer.

Hunger isn't just an empty plate on a Philly table.

It touches the suburbs, too. And the number of poor and working-poor families scrambling to find food outside Philadelphia is growing.

Although various suburban programs offer meals for youngsters in July and August, there are far fewer options than in Philadelphia, which has many more feeding sites.

"Look at him, he's underweight," Koerbel, 37, said, tilting her head toward her son, Tyler Sylvester, who completed fourth grade at Merion Elementary School. "There are days I can't feed him everything he needs. I feel embarrassed being on welfare in the high-dollar area where I live."

Tyler, 10, who gets free lunch at school, said he understands what's happening and feels bad. "She doesn't have much money," he said of his mother. "My best friend's dad works at Villanova. He makes lots of money and he has lots of food."

Koerbel said she gets no child support and is home to care for her two other children, ages 2 and 4. Shaking her head, she said, "It's hard being hungry on the Main Line."

Suburban need is growing. In the 2006-07 school year, 54,905 children in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties relied on free or reduced-price school lunches - a 24 percent increase in four years.

Chester County experienced the biggest jump - 42 percent. More than 10,000 children countywide got subsidized meals in the 2006-07 school year, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education compiled by the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center in Harrisburg.

An Inquirer survey of summer programs in the Pennsylvania suburbs found they fed only 15 percent of eligible low-income children.

That left some 47,000 youngsters in the suburbs who normally eat subsidized meals without that food in July and August.

"These kids are orphaned for the summer," said Patrick Druhan, food-resources director for the Montgomery County Community Action Development Commission. "Aside from pockets of poverty like Norristown, many hungry suburban kids are scattered.

"It's one of these cracks in the system, where everything is fine till school lets out. And nobody's taken up the task."

To qualify for a free school lunch, a family of four can make up to $27,400 a year - 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

For reduced-price meals, a family of four can't exceed $39,200 - 185 percent of poverty. A reduced-price meal costs parents 40 cents or less.

Knowing there are hungry children unseen in the suburbs "makes me crazy," said Anne Ayella, assistant director at Nutritional Development Services, part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Ayella's group runs 550 summer feeding programs in the five-county area. "People don't realize there are poor people in the suburbs."

Feeding gaps also exist in South Jersey, where nearly 70,000 students are eligible for free and reduced summer feeding programs but few exist, advocates say.

In Philadelphia, where census figures show that one-third of children aged 5 to 17 live in poverty, there is greater awareness of the need to provide summer meals.

Around 53 percent of students who get subsidized meals in school are in a summer feeding program, more than three times the suburban rate.

So rarely is the summer feeding gap discussed that Ruth Damsker, a former Montgomery County commissioner, said she was shocked to hear about it from a reporter.

"I'm appalled, frankly. Maybe it happens because kids don't vote. That's sad."

County government is not responsible for children's meals; it's a school district problem, county-level officials say. Meanwhile, district officials throughout the area say they don't have the budget to offer summer food.

"Our buildings are not open, and we don't have summer feeding programs," said Susan Phy, a spokeswoman for the Bensalem Township School District, where the number of poor children increased 68 percent between 2000 and 2005, according to a census analysis by Mark Price, labor economist at the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg.

In one district school, Rush Elementary, 56 percent of fifth graders are eligible for subsidized lunches, according to state figures.

"As far as I know, there has never been any discussion" of instituting summer feeding, Phy said.

Someone should consider rearranging budgets to feed these children, said Joe Quattrocchi, executive director of the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center.

"It does beg common sense that if you have students availing themselves of free lunch during the school year, what happens when it's out?"

It's a problem clear to everyone who was waiting in the Woodlyn Philabundance line. Koerbel, of Lower Merion, knows it. So does Jean Shaw of Linwood, Delaware County.

Her son, Thomas Leo, 14, gets free lunch at Chichester Middle School. But school's out.

"I'm here trying to make do," said Shaw, 45, an unmarried woman who said she is out of work because she was attacked by a dog she was working with at a dog day-care. She normally makes $12,000 a year.

Now, she said, "lunches and breakfasts that he got for free cost me. He tells me he's hungry. It hurts."

Recently, one of her son's friends came over and opened the refrigerator. "You don't have a thing to eat in here," Shaw remembered the boy saying.

Overhearing this, Rose Ann Robertson, the grandmother of a 6-year-old girl in Eddystone, Delaware County, commiserated. Thank goodness, Robertson said, for food pantries and distribution sites.

But pantries run low this season precisely because of the lunch feeding gap.

"My kids are hungry, so I hold back," Koerbel said. "A lot of parents in Lower Merion look at me differently. And kids can be cruel to my children with teasing because they don't have much.

"We try to make the best of it."

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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