ITHACA, N.Y. — A few times a week, five elementary schools in the Ithaca City School District get deliveries of fresh snacks which make their way to nearly 1,600 kids. This week, kids will be getting apple wedges, Valencia oranges, organic beet greens and carrots, and broccoli as part of the Fresh Snack Program, an initiative of the Youth Farm Project.

If visiting the Chili Cook-off this weekend, you’ll inevitably see volunteers weaving through the crowds hawking big slices of $1 cornbread. Though it has become a Chili Cook-off tradition, many people may not know that purchasing the chili side directly supports fresh snacks in local elementary schools. Now in its 10th year, the Cornbread for Kids initiative consistently raises around $2,500 every year for the Fresh Snack Program.

Christa Nunez, director of the program, said they are hoping to expand the program to two new schools soon. By providing free, healthy snacks of fresh fruits and vegetables, Nunez said they are trying to help kids learn more about where their food comes from. “Culturally, we’re becoming more and more removed from actually knowing what is in our food,” she said. And that disconnect can really impact health, she said.

“This program really attempts to educate people on the importance of eating things that come from the ground and helping them understand how to grow things and how to use the things that they grow to support their health — and doing it in fun ways,” Nunez said.

Nutrition is crucial for children’s development, and she said one of the core reasons they do what they do is to make sure all kids have access to healthy food. An estimated 20 percent of children in Tompkins County are food insecure, according to a 2017 study. She said many students may be in a place where they do not qualify for free or reduced lunch, but also can’t afford to bring a healthy lunch to school, yet they are “still expected to perform and learn at the same rates as anybody else, but with less on the plate.”

“Having free food on the menu for kids every chance we get I think is why we do it because it really is a crucial source of food for many and sometimes the only meal that kids have access to during school hours,” Nunez said.

Cornbread for Kids, which has raised more than $14,000 for the program over the years, is co-organized by Jerry Dietz, president of CSP Management and Jyl Dowd, development coordinator at the Cancer Resource Center. Dietz said the tradition is made possible through the effort of volunteers and generous donors, like Ithaca Bakery, who lets them use their space and Sysco, who donates ingredients.

The cornbread, which sells for a dollar a piece or the equivalent of about five healthy snacks for kids, is already baked and ready to go, and on Saturday will be sold by a team of more than a dozen volunteers.

“It really is a labor of love,” Dietz said. “This program means a great deal to us. It’s such an important program that they offer. I am so proud to have been a part of helping it succeed, and we just have a great time.”

Sample the cornbread along with chili from more than 40 restaurants at the 21st Annual Chili Cook-off hosted by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. The event takes place Saturday, Feb. 9 on the Ithaca Commons. Learn more about the Fresh Snack Program here.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.