Ithaca, N.Y. — Tompkins County could benefit significantly from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposed summer meals act, according to the Southern Tier Food Bank.
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The legislation calls for the lowering of the eligibility threshold for regions to qualify for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program. The program provides free meals to children from low-income families in the summer when school is not in session.
Currently, Tompkins County does not qualify for summer food program, as only 39 percent, or 4,368 students in the county, are eligible for reduced school lunches. Gillibrand’s bill would bring down the threshold from 50 percent to 40 percent.
“So that would be more or less of a margin of error to make Tompkins County respectively eligible,” said Jonathan Fuller, community and public relations manager of the food bank.
Senator Gillibrand visited Ithaca’s Beverly J. Martin Elementary School on Monday to discuss what she said are “common sense nutrition standards.”
She called for prioritizing healthy meals for children by having more fruits and vegetables in school lunch trays. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act — which authorizes funding and sets policy for core child nutrition programs — will expire in September and Congress is expected to be debating child nutrition standards.
There are several existing programs that provide food to students when school is not in session. The food bank currently operates the BackPack program, providing children with food for the weekends during the school year. The program serves serves 308 students in Tompkins County each week.
Furthermore, the Greater Ithaca Activities Center provides dinner to children during the summers.
“The reason why we started serving dinner is because we had kids asking for leftovers in the morning, which let us know the only meal they were getting for sure was lunch,” said Travis Brooks, program coordinator at GIAC.
GIAC feeds lunch to at least 110 children each day during the summers through the Ithaca City School District. However, the center bears the cost of the dinners. Brooks said this new legislation would reduce their expenses.
“Right now, we provide all the dinners in the summertime, so we have to pay staffing, we have to pay for the food; and it’s not necessarily in our budget,” he said. “But to be able to give the food from the school district like we do with lunches…majority of our kids would be getting three healthy meals a day.”
Fuller said stricter definitions of fruit and vegetables — notably one that prevented ketchup being counted as a vegetable — have helped improve school lunch quality. However, despite the importance of healthy foods, access is the food bank’s priority.
“We need an effective set of policies in place for delivering meals to children over the summer before we focus too much on refining the content of the meals we are providing,” he said. “With such an incredible need that has been left unmet, our priority is reaching children with much needed nutrition.”