North America

Congressional Record
US House of Representatives
9 March 1995


MR. SKAGGS: Mr. Speaker, I would like to commend to all Members of the House a striking series of articles from the Los Angeles Times. They provide a poignant rejoinder to current House Republican doctrine that we can somehow cut school lunch and breakfast programs without really hurting anybody.

The articles tell the story of the kids from West Covina, CA, a place where the local school board decided not to participate in the school breakfast program. Let me just give an excerpt.

By 10 many mornings there is a long line outside the nurse's door. Some children clutch their stomachs, others their heads. In this mostly middle-class bedroom community, these children share a common ailment. They are hungry.

Phys ed teacher Barbara Davids sometimes fed 12-year-old boy who volunteered to help custodians pick up after lunch so he could salvage garbage scraps.

Another student got in trouble so he could be sent to the principal's office, where a jar of candies was perched on the desk. `I'm so hungry. I'm so hungry,' sobbed the 12-year-old-boy dipping his hand into the jar.

Mr. Speaker, I include these articles for the Record.

The articles referred to are as follows:

20 Nov 1994

Going to School Hungry

As poverty spreads, teachers often see students who have not eaten for days. Malnutrition hinders learning, but resistance to breakfast programs raises question of how far districts should go to help.

The symptoms have swept through Edgewood Middle School.

By 10 many mornings there is a long line outside the nurse's door at the West Covina school. Some children clutch their stomachs. Others grasp their heads. In this mostly middle-class bedroom community, these children share a common ailment. They are hungry.

One boy came into Assistant Principal Amelia Esposito's office last year and confessed to stealing food from a 7-Eleven store. `Every night I go to bed hungry.' the 13-year-old told her, bowing his head. `There isn't enough food.'

`It's scary how many kids here are hungry,' says Esposito, who believes one in four children comes to class undernourished.

America's hunger is not the starvation of Somalia or Rwanda that galvanizes global attention: bloated bellies, emaciated arms, failing bodies along roadsides. Hunger here saps people in more subtle ways: families eat only once a day or skip meals for several days, causing chronic malnutrition. It is a problem that many researchers say eased markedly in the 1960s and '70s, but resurfaced with a vengeance in recent years.

Hunger, they say, afflicts up to 30 million Americans. Twelve million of them are children, many in recession-ravaged Southern California.

Their plight has emerged most publicly in the schools, where teachers delve into their own pockets to feed children whose ability to learn is being crippled by hunger.

Yet half of California's schools--including all 11 in the West Covina Unified School District--do not offer one ready remedy: breakfast, a federally funded entitlement. Nationally, 37% of the 13.6 million low-income children who get a subsidized lunch also eat a morning meal at school. In some districts, breakfast has been barred or eliminated by school officials who oppose it on philosophical grounds. Many in West Covina, where Christian conservatives dominate the school board, oppose feeding children breakfast at school, calling it anti-family and a usurpation of what should be a parent's responsibility.

`I want kids to eat at home with their families,' said school board President Mike Spence. `Breakfast at school is just one more thing school districts do rather than allowing parents to take care of their children.'

A suburb that blossomed from orange groves in the San Gabriel Valley after World War II, West Covina, the `City of Beautiful Homes,' is an unlikely haven for hunger. In the 1980s, however, teachers watched as lost jobs, an influx of new-comers from the inner city and an increase on single mothers left many students living hand-to-mouth. Although the median family income in West Covina is $51,000, there are pockets of poverty: one in four single mothers lives on less than $14,800 a year.


The Food Angel of 42nd Street

Mae Raines loads an old pickup with donated food and hands it out in some of the city's poorest areas. `When I can ease someone's pain, I feel good,' she says.

To the children running excitedly after her rusty blue 1978 Dodge pickup for a piece of bread, or an orange, she is Mother Raines or the Muffin Lady.

Mae Raines' food truck pulls to a stop in South-Central Los Angeles and she begins the task of easing hunger. `A lot of kids don't know what a snack or lunch is,' says Mae, who watches some children devour whole bags of bread. Women sometimes sob when she puts food in their hands. Men bow their heads and say thanks.

At 71, when most are quietly enjoying their golden years, Mae spends her time hauling truckloads of food to some of the most dangerous streets in Los Angeles, places many people in the City of Angels avoid. In her mind, she is simply a good Christian. `God said: Take care of the poor and the widows. I do what the Word says,' says Mae, a widow herself. To her neighbors, she is the food angel of 42nd Street.

On a crisp autumn morning with wisps of clouds in the sky, Mae arrives at the Los Angeles wholesale produce market's `charity dock,' where she gets donations of fruits, vegetables and bread. An ample woman, Mae--clad in flowing purple culottes, black high-top sneakers and a royal blue beret covering salt-and-pepper hair--points two of her foster sons at boxes of food to load. The boys pile the scratched and scarred Dodge with loaves of bread, sweet corn, oranges, pumpkins, even doughnuts. And they never forget an item children in her neighborhood south of the Coliseum count on May to bring; English muffins.

`We need radishes, four boxes,' Mae prods her foster son, Donell.

An hour later, Mae and the children scramble into the cab of the truck. The squeaky doors clang shut. She grasps her window and pushes it down by hand. Peering out the shattered windshield, she eases away from the concrete loading dock, heading south, through the warehouse district near Downtown, over two railroad tracks, past rubble-strewn lots and graffiti-marred walls, zigzagging into the heart of the city.

Rolling past low-slung houses, Mae's food wagon brakes at her first stop. Most who converge on her truck are very old or very young.

One 4-year-old boy, Minor Beli, can barely believe it when Mae holds out a box of doughnuts. `Do you want it?' she asks. For a moment, Minor hesitates, then reaches out, tightly grasping the box. His eyes look lovingly at the treat, then at Mae. Minor's mother, Ana Beli, 27, says she must often limit how much her children eat to stretch their food to the end of the month. `When I pay the rent, there is little left,' she says.

The Belis pay $350 a month for a room in a house they share with another family. Her husband works for minimum wage as a garment worker. Last night, she says, Minor, 2-year-old Jennifer and Angel, 7 months, ate one egg each.

Mary Lou Ellis, an 83-year-old with tufts of gray hair peeking out from under her cap, hobbles down the block to Mae's truck. Mae thrusts a bag of bread, radishes and tomatoes into trembling hands. `Oh lordy, lordy. Thank you! Thank you!' the woman says, beaming at Mae.

The former Lockheed Corp. riveter and housecleaner says that there often isn't enough food, so she skips meals. The rent eats up $400 of her $645 Social Security check. Utilities consume most of the rest. Someone swindled her out of her meager retirement savings, she says. Her house was emptied of furniture in a recent break-in. She leans heavily on her brown cane and stares hard at the ground. `I've never lived like this,' she says, confessing to no one in particular. `I feel like taking a gun and shooting my brains out.'

The stooped woman hobbles away. But as word gets out, her neighbors emerge from their homes, creating a crowd. `Are you selling this?' one woman asks. Mae turns to her with a warm smile. `No,' she says. `I'm giving it away.'

'Oh! There's my girl,' Mary Washington squeals at Mae, who has helped her ever since she fell and broke her neck a decade ago. A former cook and janitor, she points to a long surgical scar that runs the length of her neck. Her head tilts to the side. Ever since the accident, seizures have made it hard to keep a job.

'She'll dress you. She'll feed you,' she says, striking Mae's shoulder as her friend fills a bag with radishes and corn. Each month, she tries to survive on $212 in welfare--which lets her rent a room in a house--and $103 in food stamps. Collecting cans and bottles from trash bins brings in $15 more, which busy some food for the end of the month.

Two years ago, at 69, Mae took in a 2-day-old crack baby for a year. She has had 10 foster children over the years, and also has taken in 10 other neighborhood children off and on, occasionally sleeping on the living room window seat to accommodate them.

Sometimes, the tough grandmother feels fear on her food runs. Once, she had driven her truck Downtown to Skid Row, parked and begun laying out pans of homemade rice, chicken wings, cheese toast and cobbler. Chris and Cee were at her side, wrapping forks and spoons in napkins. A group of homeless men gathered around her menacingly. Mae quickly solicited one of the ragged men to help her. `You can come here anytime.' he said, staring down the others. `I guarantee no one will take advantage of you and your children .' She fed 200 that day.

Mae's neighborhood is rough, too. In recent years, two neighbors'sons--neither one in gangs--were killed in drive-bys, shot through the back and neck. One an 18-year-old boy, was buried in a grave site Mae had purchased for herself The Menlo Avenue School one block from her home has a 'gunfire evacuation plan.' Its schoolyard has been sprayed with bullets 10 times in the past year and a half, once just as kindergarten was letting out, says Principal Arthur W. Chandler. Police helicopters often hover overhead, tracking clashes among the 18th Street Gang, the Rolling 40 Crips and increasingly violent tagging groups such as the Dirty Old Men.

Poverty is another mounting concern. Part of Mae's route traverses an area of South-Central in which more than one in four residents didn't have the resources to feed themselves the entire month, according to a UCLA study.

Since the 1980s, as a growing tide of poverty has left more people hungry, the efforts of nonprofit groups and individuals have become increasingly critical in curbing hunger's toll. `The government cannot do it all. If it weren't for the private sector, the tragedy would be, I think, unbelievable,' says Roy B. McKeown, president of World Opportunities. Requests from people like Mae, he says, have become more urgent in recent years as joblessness in the inner cities has skyrocketed.

Mae's drive through this hungry landscape often includes a stop at her neighborhood Unocal gas station. `C'mon baby,' she beckons to a man furiously washing windshields one recent day. Word spreads like wildfire down the street . Soon, the truck is surrounded by homeless women and men, many of whom have known Mae for years. She plucks oranges, apples and bread from boxes around the rim of the truck.

One bag goes to Tyrone Richardson, a 32-year-old unemployed construction worker. Taking the food, he fishes a wadded-up dollar bill from his pants. He stuffs it into Mae's shirt pocket. `This will help you get gas to help others. Sometimes I don't have a dime. Today I do.' he says. The gift amounts to half of his total assets. Mae vehemently refuses the money. But, cradling a watermelon in his arm, he walks away, saying only, `She got a good heart.'

`This is what we do,' Mae says simply, stuffing more plastic bags with food.

`What's the problem? Tell me?' Mae quietly asks Sheree Wilson, 31, who has been homeless for three months and was headed to Jack-in-the-Box to eat a free packet of jelly when she noticed Mae's truck.

`This is my baby,' the woman says, pulling from her jacket a crumpled photograph of her 1-year-old boy, Joshua, beaming from his crib. She stops peeling her orange and begins to sob, explaining that she left the baby with her mother because she is addicted to crack and `going crazy.'

She says her best friend, who was on the streets with her, was recently arrested for prostitution and drug dealing. Now that she's alone, the streets are wildly dangerous. She's not sure how to get out, or if she has the will to leave crack behind.

Mae pulls out a small coin purse, counts out four quarters. Then, standing by her truck, Mae lays her hand on the woman's chest and leads her in prayer. `You are gonna be all right. Nothing is too hard,' she urges.

`I have faith.' Sheree says, lovingly fingering the picture of her son. `I just went the other way.'

Mae pulls out of the station, leaving behind a destitute crowd on the blacktop, all of them munching apples.

It's not long before Mae happens upon Rosa Ramirez, 20, with her two children. Marbella Heredia, 1, and Jose Heredia, 2. Her husband, she explains, gets sporadic work in the garment industry. Now things are slow and he brings home as little as $50 a week. Marbella virtually inhales an orange she grasps in her tiny right hand. The juice cascades down her chin, trickling onto her white sweater. `I try to feed them something every day. Sometimes, it's just rice and beans,' she says.

Mae prepares to leave, but Jose's brown eyes look pleadingly at her as he stuffs the orange into his mouth. `More?' he asks.

Mae's last stop of the day is Tarlee McCrady's house on Raymond Avenue. Mae peers inside the two-story house from her truck and, seeing no sign of life, drives on. But a loud pleading wail comes from behind the front door: `I'm here! I'm here!'

Mae parks in the shade. `You want a pumpkin?' she asks. The woman, who has sweptback gray hair, runs out and nods.

A 65-year-old living on Social Security, she met Mae in church nearly two decades ago. When her body is up to it, she goes out on the truck with Mae, helping distribute food. Today, she says, she is fretting over how to pay her water bill. She, too, gets much of her sustenance from Mae.

If not for the help, she says, `I'd be down on Skid Row. What else would I do?'

`She doesn't do a lot of talking. But she does a whole lot of doing,' says Brenda White, who works at Church of the Harvest, which Mae attends. She says she's seen Mae take a bed out of her house--even the food in her own refrigerator--and give it away. Brenda, who has two daughters, was divorced six years ago and had a breakdown, leaving her temporarily unable to work at her hair salon. She was too embarrassed to ask for help from relatives. Mae didn't need prodding. Every other week, she began to bring bags of food.

In addition to her Social Security, Mae receives a modest income from caring for her foster children. Everything that's left after paying bills--about $100 a month--is put in a coin purse and slowly given out to people in need. The only hand-out she's taken from the government is some cheese.

`People have millions of dollars, they die, and their children fuss over it. I give my surplus money for children,' she says.

Mae, nearing exhaustion, steers her truck home.

Wheeling into her driveway, Mae still has a third of the food. `Hi, Mother Raines!' a little girl from next door cries, waving. Other neighbors drop by. `What kind of bread you need? Brown bread? White bread? Your grandma feel better today?' Mae asks Erick, 8. He nods. Mae knows that many neighbors skip some meals each day but are too embarrassed to ask for food. `I know which ones won't come out,' she says. `Some people would rather die than ask for help.' For these, she packs boxes, which Donell begins delivering on people's stoops.

`I work in the shadows of an inner city overrun by gangs and riotous living. But when I can ease someone's pain, or can encourage them, I feel good,' Mae says. `If I never do anything for the community I live in, why am I here? I don't want to hear the baby next door cry from lack of milk or see a child walk by without shoes.

'It's not hopeless. Everyone isn't extending themselves.'

On Thanksgiving Day, Mae says, she will bake 17 traditional dishes. In the morning, her natural and foster children will gather, and read prayers. `Thanksgiving is for my family,' Mae says, closing her front gate as the last of the food is dispensed and dusk approaches. That said, Mae concedes that last year, she gathered her leftovers at the end of the day, some paper plates and plastic silverware and summoned her children to help. She went to the corner of her street and served food to the thankful until every crumb was gone.


Three weeks after this series ran, the West Covina Unified school board voted to institute a government-subsidized breakfast program at Edgewood Middle School and at seven of its elementary schools, thus assuring breakfast--and a chance to learn unimpeded by hunger--to thousands of children .

West Covina's move to join the program was part of a rush by 60 schools in California. Thirty-three of these schools were in Southern California. They were among a group of 193 Southland schools that the state says should offer breakfast because a high proportion of their students are low income, but did not do so for a variety of reasons.

The Times reported on these schools and their struggles over whether to serve breakfast in a follow up to the series on Dec. 12.

Back at Edgewood, donations poured in. More than $22,500 had been pledged or delivered by Dec. 13. A citizens group, formed spontaneously after the series to fight hunger in West Covina Unified schools, used the money to serve breakfast to children until the government-funded breakfast could begin.

West Covina residents were not the only ones moved to get involved. One donor offered a secondhand truck to Mae Raines, the food angel of 42nd street , to replace her old clunker. Several churches and temples read the story about `the Muffin Lady' during weekend services. At the Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, 40 worshippers passed a plate and collected $307 for Raines. Then, they planned a food drive.

`It really made us look in the mirror and say: `We aren't doing enough',' said Ron Bernard, synagogue board president.

Others pledged $12,000 to the Charity Dock, an innovative hunger program at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market.

Hundreds of callers flooded the newspaper with offers of help for some of the people profiled in the series. Many called crying, saying they wanted to know how they could help a food pantry, a food drive, or assist a family in need.

`My husband is ill on life support. And I'm crippled from arthritis.' wrote Majorie B. Walker of Los Angeles in halting handwriting. `But never have we went without food.' She sent $50 to one family profiled in the series.

`My wife and I found your article to be a rude awakening to a problem which we did not know existed.' wrote Bob J. Ratledge of Palm Desert, who fired off a letter to the West Covina Unified school board urging that it adopt a breakfast program. Other letters to the board were more blunt, threatening a recall if action wasn't taken. Some who sent checks apologized that they couldn't afford to send more. Others said they sat their children down and read them the stories of hunger.

Lisa Drynan, who was profiled with her three young sons, received more than 200 calls from readers offering to help. She said the assistance promised to make this the best holiday season ever for her children .

The story also sparked calls from hungry people seeking food assistance. At the Southern California Interfaith Hunger Coalition, a stream of people called to ask how they could apply for food stamps. The Self-Help and Resource Exchange--a program that helps people pool their resources to buy wholesome food at half the retail cost--has also seen an uptick in activity.

And at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, which struggles to get a decent share of corporate salvage food products to feed the hungry, this series helped focus new attention nationwide on the difficulties private efforts are encountering in stemming hunger. Pointing to subsequent national TV news and magazine stories touching on the issue, executive director Doris Bloch said, `these stories have built a fire under people.'


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