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Markham court needs to restore kids' food program

Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Daily Southtown

Amid our recent holiday feeding frenzies centered on the almighty barbecue, how many of us stopped to think how fortunate we were to have access to good food and lots of it?

Did you bother at all to think about those for whom a small portion of your backyard repast would seem like a feast?

A few recent developments here in the Southland should serve as reminders that many of our neighbors struggle to find proper nutrition for themselves and their families and that attempts to help these people often don't go far enough or become derailed. We'll comment on one development today and a couple of others Thursday.

Staff writer Jonathan Lipman reported in Monday's Southtown about how a once worthwhile food program for children at the Markham courthouse was canceled. The program was started in the mid-1990s after Sheila Murphy, then the presiding judge at Markham, noticed that many of the children who accompanied their parents into the courthouse obviously were not receiving adequate nourishment. The Markham courthouse serves the poorest suburban communities in Cook County. Many of the families can't afford good, nutritious food. If they could, there is no cafeteria at the courthouse. The nearest restaurant is almost a mile away.

A program was set up to provide fruit and other nutritious snacks to children who were tended to in the court's child-care area while their parents were in courtrooms, often for day-long sessions. Similar programs spread to six other courthouses in Cook County. In 2005, the Greater Chicago Food Depository provided 7,600 pounds of food to the courthouses at a cost of just $527.

But last August, the program was abruptly halted. The food depository, by federal regulation, can distribute only the food through a non-profit agency. A court-affiliated agency handled the distribution until 2002 when the county's chief judge, Timothy Evans, shut it down, saying it was unethical for a program affiliated with the courts to seek charitable donations. The food continued to be distributed until last summer when the food depository finally discovered the agency no longer existed and had no choice but to stop making deliveries. Loyola University Health Systems has become the affiliated agency at two other courthouses, and the Chicago Public Schools provide free lunches during summer months at courthouses in Chicago. As for the kids at Markham, they now receive cookies and crackers "intermittently" -- hardly part of a healthy diet.

We hope some local non-profit agency can step up and fill the void at Markham. The food depository is poised to start delivering again. And we wish Judge Evans would show as much compassion today as Judge Murphy did back in the 1990s. Evans told Lipman, "We're not a nutritional site ... we're not trying to say that we're providing lunch. We're not saying we're trying to provide kids with exactly the same thing everywhere."

True, the courts aren't nutritional sites, but Evans has been around long enough to know the circumstances of the children whose parents appear on the other side of his bench. These kids are guilty of nothing more than being hungry, and the chief judge should have made sure his action in 2002 didn't hamper what was a worthwhile program -- one indeed that put the court in a good light.

It's time to get the good food back in the Markham courthouse.

Tomorrow: The Greater Chicago Food Depository identifies gaps in food distribution in the south suburbs, and the community rallies to save well-known food pantry in Markham.


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