The child never looked up. His focus was on the tray of food before him. There were other children all around, but he was driven by hunger, and little else mattered. This went on for a few days at The Boys & Girls Clubs of Oklahoma County Memorial Park Club until A. Jaye Johnson, unit director at the club, walked over and quietly sat beside him. He’d noticed the hurried pace and had sensed there was more he should know. The boy started by saying, "Mr. A. Jaye, we don’t have a lot of food at home.” "Slow down, we have plenty,” Johnson said supportively. Then the child became really sad. He not only felt hunger, but he also felt guilt. He was getting to eat, but he had a little brother at home who wasn’t. This man, who has the look of an offensive lineman but is very gentle in speech, crumbled. He told the child to come see him before leaving. "I made sure he took a little to-go box home to his brother every day,” Johnson said. "After I started doing that, the little boy at home would draw pictures of airplanes and other things and send them with his brother to me. It was just his way of saying thank you. That hit me so hard.” Hunger continues even when school lets out for summer break. In the summer of 2009, The Boys & Girls Clubs’ Memorial Park Club, in cooperation with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, served 13,000 meals. That number will likely increase this summer. Doug Gibson, the club’s executive director, said they plan to serve 500 children a day from the start of summer break to the end. They will offer three meals, Monday through Friday, and any child of school age can take a seat at the table. He said there are 14,000 school children within a two-mile radius of their building in Oklahoma City, and added that more than 91 percent of the children who find their way to the club’s door are considered poor. "Every day we look into the face of a hungry child,” Gibson said. "It’s kind of a helpless look, sometimes frightened, but it’s usually sad. It’s not the face of a happy child, a fulfilled child.” Several public and private groups in Oklahoma have recognized that many children need somewhere to get meals after the school year. For example, the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma sponsors 35 meal sites in central and western Oklahoma and also assists nine meal sites that operate through private funding, said Food Bank spokeswoman Ellen Pogemiller. Any person 18 or younger is eligible to receive a meal through the Summer Food Service Program in the 35 sites, while the private locations may have different criteria, she said. "As you know, when school ends it doesn’t mean learning ends,” she said, "and for children, just because school ends it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have access to a nutritious meal. "It can be scary for kids who may not know where they’re going to get their next meal. Through this program we target children who are in need of meals during the summer time.” Nearly 322,000 students, or 49.19 percent of the total public student population in Oklahoma, are eligible to receive free school meals, according to the state Education Department. More than 63,000 students, or nearly 9.69 percent of the total student population, are eligible to receive reduced price school meals. Such meals are sold to students for 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch. Oklahoma County’s student poverty rate has increased to 61.07 percent, up from 59.87 percent last year. Gibson said they provide a safe place and a positive environment for children during the day. And while the children are there, they teach life skills. "We know if we want to be successful in teaching our children something that’s going to be beneficial to them, they’ve got to be fed,” he said. "They’ve got to be physically fed before they can be emotionally fed or educationally fed, because hunger will prevent you from having the ability to just sit still and focus.” Shea Bainter has served as a chef at the Memorial Park Club for about four years. He talked about where the blue tile of the dining room ends and the tan tile of the kitchen begins. That’s where a little boy named Marquez waits each day after school to get Bainter’s attention. The boy knows children are not allowed in the kitchen without permission. So he waits on the blue tile. "I’ll say, ‘Come on in, Marquez,’ and he’ll come in and give me a hug,” Bainter said. "He’ll just let me know how his day was and ask how my day was. That sadness is always in his eyes, and you can tell he’s hungry. So I always make sure he goes back through the line and gets his food and eats it. More often than not, he will come back asking for seconds. "Seconds are always available.”
For more information
To learn more about the Summer Food Service program for children, go to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma website at regionalfood bank.org.