INDEPENDENCE — The six Butler girls crowd outside the blue double doors of the gym that doubles as a makeshift cafeteria at Henry Hill Elementary School.
It's just before noon on the first day of winter break, and the energetic sisters are hungry. They would typically eat free lunches when school is in session.
But their family's $568 in food stamps ran out a week ago. Today, instead of eating macaroni and cheese or peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches at their four-bedroom rental house a block away, the girls walk to Henry Hill for a free meal of chicken nuggets, sugar snap peas, satsuma oranges and chocolate milk.
For families like the Butlers, the winter break meal program at Henry Hill is a godsend. It's an unusual program — perhaps the only one of its kind in the state. But programs like this help rural Oregon communities, with some of the highest child poverty rates in the state, overcome the lack of access and resources that complicate efforts to address hunger.
In Condon, 70 miles southeast of The Dalles, the child-care center buses children 80 miles round-trip to give them swimming lessons and a free lunch during summer break. In La Grande, a $3,000 grant paid for a conduction oven and stove at the activity center to replace the two-decade-old grill that took 40 minutes to boil water.
The Butler family is grateful for the winter break meal program in In Independence, 12 miles southwest of Salem. "This program is huge," said the girls' mother, Anne Butler, who arrived at lunch later with her eldest daughter, Megan, 18. "When the kids are all out of school, it costs a lot for food."
Mom is a full-time psychology student at Western Oregon University and recently obtained an associate's degree in social work from Chemeketa Community College. Dad, Brian Butler, works full time at a warehouse in Albany.
Their seven children also include Tristan, 13; Jordan, 11; Samantha, 9; Cassandra, 8; and twins Dakota and Mackenzie, 7.
Anne Butler volunteered at Henry Hill's summer meal program last year and recalls helping a grandmother who hadn't eaten all day who stopped by with four grandchildren. In return for helping clean up, the grandmother received some of the leftover food that otherwise would have been tossed.
"She takes care of the boys and lets them eat first, but she never eats anything," Anne Butler said. "There are some families around here who have less than we do, and their kids' primary meal is here."
Condon Child Care Inc. works with Wheeler and Gilliam counties to bus children 80 miles round-trip from Arlington and 40 miles round-trip from Fossil. The children, about 15 from each community last summer, receive swimming lessons at the Condon pool and a free lunch afterward at Condon Elementary School.
The Condon center also works with local arts organizations, sports coaches and others to offer summer camps, where children can also receive a free meal.
"One of the reasons we end up doing stuff like that is that we're a community where, if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen," said Jennifer Bold, the center's director. "It requires everybody to work together to get the kids served at the level they need."