Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Improving child nutrition programs - action needed

Across the North Country, children are going back to school this week.  For some of them, the highlight of getting back in school is having a healthy meal at lunchtime, and maybe even breakfast.  In St. Lawrence County, more than half of our children qualify for free meals at school.  Did you ever wonder where they eat in the summer?

Congress has a chance to do something about this challenge and help ensure that all of our children have healthy diets, for The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act expires on September 30.  This legislation authorizes the following programs:  National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Summer Food Service Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (commonly known as WIC).  Failing to pass this legislation puts all of these programs at risk.

In the course of the conversations about these programs in Washington, our elected officials have started to understand some of the challenges of these programs, particularly the Summer Food Service Program, face in rural areas.   While the Summer Food Service Program was designed to serve children who get a free lunch during the school year, there are particular challenges implementing this program in rural areas like St. Lawrence County.  The current legislation requires that the meals be served at a central site that has an enrichment activity - a good idea, but hard to do with the distances involved here.  The program also requires that at least 50% of children in a district be eligible for the free meals in order to have a site - also challenging in places where the poverty is less concentrated than in urban areas.

However, some great ideas have come up as it relates to that question of where the kids from low-income families eat in the summer. One idea is to remove the requirement for on-site feeding, so meals could be delivered via other models to children in remote communities.  Another idea is to lower the threshold for a summer food site to 40% of the area children being eligible for a free meal - this would also help our small towns.  Finally, there has been conversation about streamlining and simplifying some of these programs, including the idea of providing families with extra benefits on their EBT cards for food purchases while their children are out of school.  This last model has been piloted and tested successfully in a number of communities around the nation.

What can you do?  Senator Gillibrand and Congresswoman Stefanik sit on the respective committees considering this legislation in the Senate and the House.  Send each of them an e-mail urging them to support alternatives in the Summer Food Service program that will help rural communities, including the summer EBT option, the non-congregate meal model, and streamlining of the program.

Here's where to contact them:

Senator Gillibrand

Congresswoman Stefanik