Chris West sleepily rubs his eyes. It is 7 a.m., and all seven people in his cramped Northeast Washington apartment are beginning to stir. A baby cries. Chris's grandmother dresses for work. A sister rises from the living room floor, where she slept with several other family members.

Chris, a slight 8-year-old, is hungry. But he doesn't bother going into the kitchen, where the only activity is the cockroaches scurrying in and out of a jagged hole in the wall.

Breakfast won't come for another hour, and it won't be at home. Today, like most days, Chris will receive a free breakfast and lunch outside his home, courtesy of the U.S. government. What little food there is in the kitchen--a jar of peanut butter here, some tortillas there--is preciously saved for dinner.

Chris dresses neatly and places a lanyard with his house keys around his neck. Then, in the sweltering heat of the cluttered apartment, the third-grader waits, reading a story to pass the time.

At 8:10 a.m., Chris's grandmother, Florence Shorter, takes his hand. They leave home and walk two blocks, past the neighborhood drug boys, past piles of trash, to the cafeteria at Shaed Elementary School. Inside Shaed's sterile, industrial kitchen, Chris claims his free breakfast: four ounces of orange juice, a half-pint of milk, one small carton of Honey Nut Cheerios. At noon, after summer school classes, Chris returns for lunch.

Chris is the face of childhood hunger in the District. He is hardly a starving child with a distended belly and bony arms. But he is one of 45,000 D.C. children who either are hungry or at risk of going hungry every day, according to the Capital Area Food Bank.

For these children, feeding programs are nothing short of a lifeline that their families--many of them plagued by drugs, violence and a lack of hope--cannot consistently provide.

"I don't know what I would do if it wasn't for these free breakfasts and lunches," says Shorter, 45, who is struggling to raise and feed her daughter's five children. Her daughter is a crack addict and spends most of her time on the streets. Shorter herself is a recovering addict, clean for five years and now working after two decades of "drinking and drugging."

The free breakfasts and lunches allow Shorter and other parents and guardians of children in the program to focus on scraping together dinner. They take buses to food pantries, pool food stamps and meager salaries. In many neighborhoods, women chip in to provide dinners to other mothers' children. Chris often is fed by a family friend at her house.

Michele Tingling-Clemmons, of the Food Research and Action Center, a national anti-hunger group, says a 1998 study indicated that 43,750 D.C. schoolchildren under age 18--60 percent of the city's total--are receiving free or reduced-price school lunches. In Maryland, 214,709 children receive free or reduced-price lunches; in Virginia, 295,322 children qualify for them.

Experts say the problem of childhood hunger often is understated because parents and guardians are embarrassed to talk about it. Indeed, if children are found suffering from hunger when their parents have the ability to feed them, they could be taken from the parents under child welfare laws.

Although there are larger families with children facing more dire circumstances than Chris's, the food supply to children such as Chris is tenuous, Tingling-Clemmons said.

"His grandmother is holding it together by threads," she says. "Things are very, very fragile. If one thing falls through, those children could miss meals and go hungry."

For Chris, the salvation these days is the city's summer feeding program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides well-balanced meals to children under 18. In the District, the meals are served at 130 schools; other groups chip in to feed children at more than 100 additional sites.

Lynn Brantley, executive director of the Capital Area Food Bank, recently warned D.C. school officials that once summer school ends in August, children like Chris might not get free meals because many of the schools that have been feeding centers will close.

Brantley accused D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman of backing out of a promise to keep all the school feeding centers open during the last three weeks of August. Ackerman plans to close many of the schools for budgetary reasons, and to clean them before the fall term.

D.C. officials haven't announced what schools will remain open, but say that combined with the other feeding sites, there will be enough centers available for a program that fed 23,000 children last summer. Brantley argues that the food bank has documented several instances this summer in which schools that were supposed to be open were not, not enough meals were available and meals didn't arrive on time.

"How can we walk away from our kids like this?" she asked.

Cafeteria as Oasis

At Chris's school, lunch is ready at 12:30 p.m. He slips on his green backpack, heads to the Shaed cafeteria and picks up a slightly burned hamburger patty with cheese, a bun, french fries, a cup of canned peaches and milk. Some children aren't always thrilled with the menu, but it's usually just fine with Chris, who sees the cafeteria as something of an oasis.

"I would rather eat lunch here than at home," he said.

At Chris's school, all 400 students get a free breakfast and lunch during the school year, said Brenda Richards, Shaed's principal.

"For some children, these are the only meals they're getting," Richards said. During the school year, she said, the nurse at Shaed is most busy toward the end of the month, when many families' monthly allocations of food stamps run out. Hungry children come in, complaining of tummy aches.

"Hunger is a major concern here," Richards said. "Sometimes, to figure out when a child last ate, we ask him what was on TV during his last meal." This summer, about 135 children come for lunch after attending summer school; Richards worries that many parents don't know about the program.

A 1994 study by the now-defunct nonprofit DC Hunger Action indicated that one in four D.C. children younger than 12 were hungry or at risk of hunger--meaning they or family members often missed meals or had meal sizes cut because there wasn't enough food or money to buy it. Those children's families had incomes of up to $30,895, or nearly twice the poverty line for a family of four.

For Shorter, Chris's grandmother, it hasn't been that long since the struggle to provide food was even greater than it is now.

"I didn't have a job for a year, and I could barely feed the kids," she said. "There were a lot of really hard times when I had nothing, or only bread and canned vegetables." She made agonizing choices about which bill to pay, and several times she couldn't use the stove because the gas had been turned off.

Shorter, now in an AmeriCorps job training program, earns $814 a month working in the food bank's warehouse. She also is taking classes at Trinity College to get a GED. Through AmeriCorps, she takes classes that teach nutrition and cost-effective shopping. Every month, she receives $402 in food stamps and $463 in public assistance.

Shorter pays $350 a month for her one-bedroom apartment in a four-unit brick building near Rhode Island Avenue NE. The other units are vacant; her landlord says he can't lease them because of all the drug selling on the block.

Another $200 a month goes toward cigarettes--two packs of Newports a day. Shorter calls it her last vice.

She--or friends--pull together dinner for the children, who rarely get seconds. Snacks between meals are a luxury. "We just don't have it," Shorter said.

In other neighborhoods, women who have enough for their own are feeding others. At Barry Farms in Southeast, Belinda Lewis says that when she barbecues, children from the housing complex flock to her back yard. In Chris's neighborhood, an elderly woman routinely sets out bread and other staples for women whose food stamps have run out.

Inside Shorter's run-down apartment, there is no dinner table. When Chris and his siblings eat dinner there during the week, his grandmother puts newspaper on the floor, and the children eat from paper plates. On weekends, Shorter often sends the children to Prince George's County, to stay with godparents or relatives.

One recent evening, Shorter served each child an ear of corn. "Can I have some more?" asked Chris's 9-year-old brother, Denard, after he had finished his. There was only enough for one helping, so his sister, Tessa, 11, gave him hers. Shorter limited the milk each child drank, to save some for her 9-month-old grandson, Travion.

Shorter usually serves a lot of Top Ramen "Oodles of Noodles," which she mixes with canned vegetables and calls "Yak." The dried noodles are inexpensive--a six-pack costs 99 cents--and two packs are enough for dinner. But she recently learned in her nutrition class that the noodles are chock full of sodium and preservatives.

Sometimes Shorter feeds the children chicken, but she can't buy meat in bulk because her freezer is tiny. She wants to buy fresh fruit for the children from farmer's markets, but they don't accept food stamps. She tries to keep sweets from the children because "it makes them hyper." In her cupboard, she always tries to at least have rice.

Shopping is challenging for Shorter. She says a Shopper's Food Warehouse near Bladensburg Road has lower prices than the Safeway closer to her home, but she has to take two buses to get there and has had trouble lugging groceries back.

Because Shorter has struggled with substance abuse much of her life, there is much catching up to do now that she's clean. The grandmother is just now learning to shop effectively for a family, stretch her food stamps and read nutrition labels.

"I really didn't know how to shop. When it said three pounds for $1.00, I thought you had to buy the whole three pounds," Shorter confessed after a recent shopping class.

'It's My Mother'

One morning last week, Chris awoke to find someone else sleeping in his bedroom: "It's my mother," he whispered. She lives mostly on the street or with friends. But during the night she had come in, high on crack, and curled up to sleep. When she awoke, she went into the kitchen and scrounged around in the refrigerator for some crab legs she had brought in. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

Meanwhile, Chris, dressed and ready, sat on the couch and waited patiently to be taken to breakfast, as gospel music blared from the television. He swayed a little to the rhythm while reading a story.

Shorter was running late, trying to dress for work, get Denard off to school and deal with her wayward daughter in the kitchen. By the time they arrived at Shaed, it was 8:35 a.m.--five minutes past the end of serving time for breakfast.

"Breakfast is over," a kitchen worker said sternly. "Rules are rules."

Chris didn't seem to hear. He was hungry. Quietly, he reached for his tray of reduced-fat milk, a carton of pineapple juice and a small box of frosted corn flakes--again just one box, not the two he's supposed to get under federal nutrition regulations. He took the food and quickly ate it.

For lunch that day, Chris was served a hot dog, a bun, a couple of spoonfuls of baked beans, chocolate milk and a nectarine. The boy across the table asked Chris for the nectarine, and he handed it over. As precious as food is to Chris, like any kid he will swap or give away foods he doesn't like.

He went home from school with Judy Hamilton--"Miss Judy"--a school aide who baby-sits for Shorter. For more than three hours at her house, Chris played a video game. Then he went outside to ride a purple bicycle on the sidewalk.

Suddenly he stopped. "There's my mom!" he cried out. "Hey Mom!" he yelled to a woman about a block away. She and a man walked toward Chris. When they reached him, they walked briskly by. Chris looked down at the sidewalk.

About 5 p.m., Chris wheeled back to Miss Judy's house. His grandmother was there. She had finished her shift at the warehouse, but now was on her way to a Narcotics Anonymous/Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She needs the meetings to stay her course.

"I'm hungry," Chris said. Hamilton gave him a soda and some of the lasagna she had made for her three children.

In her apartment later that night, Shorter sat down on her couch to relax. The baby was bawling. He had an ear infection and was teething. But Shorter and her grandchildren had made it through another day. She still has to figure out how to get by tomorrow, and the next day and the next. If the cafeteria at Shaed Elementary stops serving meals next month and she can't get her grandchildren to another site, she has no idea what she will do to feed them.

Shorter waited until the children had fallen asleep, and the baby had temporarily let up. Then she closed her eyes. In the dim light, she began to pray.

CAPTION: Chris West, 8, moves through the food line at Shaed Elementary School in Northeast Washington to pick up his lunch. "I would rather eat lunch here than at home," he said.

CAPTION: Chris West goes over homework with his grandmother, Florence Shorter. Nearby: Chris's 9-month-old brother, Travion; his sister Tessa, 11, on the floor; and brother Denard, 9, sitting.

CAPTION: Denard holds his brother Travion. The children, along with their three siblings, are being reared by their grandmother.