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COOS BAY — In an area where the majority of students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, school districts spend the summer serving hot meals to hungry children.

Workers packed 100 hot chicken sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, milk, apples, carrots and celery into a van Monday morning. They spent the next two hours darting around Coos Bay, putting lunch in the hands of smiling kids.

While fewer children statewide accessed free meals last summer (a 2 percent dip) due to budget cuts and lack of awareness, those communities with targeted support — such as new funding and partnerships in Coos Bay — saw an increase. Participation in the free Summer Food Service Program increased 12 percent in Coos County from 2012 to 2013, according to a report by Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

That doesn't necessarily mean more kids are hungry, said AmeriCorps member Luke Rushing, who's working with Coos Bay schools' summer lunch program this year.

"The economic data hasn't changed," he said. "Access has increased, not the problem."

Coos Bay's mobile meal delivery is in its second year. The district took a van to 12 sites last year, and snagged grant funding for a second van this summer. During test snack runs last week, around 75 children showed up in one day. Those numbers will only increase as the summer goes on.

Rushing is mapping homes of children who qualified for free or reduced price lunch this school year. He wants to see if there are pockets of children the system is missing in order to possibly add more delivery routes. While 60 percent of Coos Bay students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, that spikes to nearly 80 percent on the west side. Many parents don't fill out the application due to disability or illiteracy, said Coos Bay schools accountant Diane Follansbee, who works with the summer meals program.

"A few years ago, kids were not coming out to the meal sites, not because they weren't hungry but because they couldn't get here," she said.

Many of the kids who show up at the mobile meal sites do so alone. Their mothers and/or fathers have to work long hours to make ends meet, Rushing said, so their children sometimes have to get lunch on their own.

In terms of the percentage of kids eating free or reduced price lunch during the school year who also eat free summer lunch, Coos County ranks ninth statewide with 34 percent participating. Curry County ranks second, with 60 percent participating.

Follansbee hopes the fruit and vegetable snacks students get during the school day will expose them to healthy eating they don't see at home.

As Rushing and Follansbee drove up to Taylor/Wasson Park on Monday, children scattered across the playground lined up single file, waiting patiently for their lunch.

"Some never see their parents or live in trailers half-burnt out," Rushing said. "It can be really nightmareish."

The mobile sites are also providing free books, athletic equipment and toys this summer.

The North Bend School District also oversees Coquille and Reedsport’s food service programs, providing summer meals to kids at 33 sites in the three communities, plus Myrtle Point. Bandon is also providing free meals this summer.

This fall, both the Myrtle Point and Reedsport school districts will enter into the Community Eligibility Provision for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. All students, regardless of family income, will be able to get free breakfast and lunch at school every day.

In the 2013-2014 school year, 54 percent of Oregon students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch, an 11 percent increase in 10 years.

"For some students, the meals they receive at school may be the only reliable, nutritious food they can count on," said Oregon Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rob Saxton in a news release. "The arrival of summer can increase concerns over food insecurity as families struggle to put food on the table. These meals help provide vital nutrition so that our students can stay healthy and hunger-free over the summer months.”

Reporter Chelsea Davis can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 239, or by email at chelsea.davis@theworldlink.com. Follow her on Twitter: @ChelseaLeeDavis.

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