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Saratoga County reviving Free Summer Meals program for 2023

Saratoga County is bringing back a program to make sure that kids stay fed during the summer.

Local officials and program leaders kicked off the 2023 Free Summer Meals program at a playground in Mechanicville on Wednesday at one of 19 county locations where minors can get free meals on weekdays through a program run by the United Way of the Greater Capital Region and other partners.

Capital Region Democratic Congressman Paul Tonko says it’s about community support.

“Nutrition is a very important part, especially during the summer months when the school program is suspended. And it's also about nurturing their mind and soul. So, you know, our children need to know they're loved," Tonko said.

Andy Gilpin, Executive Director of CAPTAIN, one of the project partners, says it’s a way to address a critical need.

“The Summer Meals Program is one of our most special programs throughout the year. And we look forward to it all the time. We have over 18 sites this year. Last year we had 22,000 meals served. It’s an amazing way to support the community and to really address food insecurity in Saratoga," Gilpin said.

State Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner is a Democrat whose 113th district includes Mechanicville.

“In Mechanicville, no one in need is ever alone. And it is because it is a community with such tremendous heart that we have such a vibrant Summer Meals Program for our kids, that we have such a vibrant summer camp through the community center, that we have such a vibrant summer reading program at the library. This is an amazing community that makes sure that no one is left behind. And in the summertime, having programs like this, that feed kids in the middle of the day is critical, because they're not at school where they can get a meal anymore," Woerner said.

State Senator Jim Tedisco, a Republican from the 44th District, highlighted the community aspect of the program.

“If the individuals in that team don't care who gets the credit, everybody, the entire team, the individuals in the groups can all achieve great goals and great credit," Tedisco said.

Tedisco presented a citation to CAPTAIN and the other partners celebrating their efforts.

Becca Anthony, Youth Development and Food Services Manager for CAPTAIN, says the program’s reach keeps growing.

“In 2013, we grew from one site to six sites, we served a little over 4,000 meals, and our reach fed about 400 children. In 2022, we had 22 feeding sites, served over 1,400 children and 24,000 meals in Saratoga County. In these past 10 years, we've had the pleasure of working with over 18 organizations, including libraries, community centers, housing authorities, ambulance corps, and when needed commercial parking lots to provide meals sites in areas in need that are easily accessible for families we serve," Anthony said.

Anthony says that her organization collaborates with communities to find the best locations for meal programs.

Heather Senecal, Learning and Evaluation Director for United Way of the Greater Capital Region, says the end of pandemic-era support programs has resulted in increased need.

“There’s 23 percent more children accessing the food pantries in their first quarter. So we anticipate a similar trend in terms of a family seeking out sites and coming out," Senecal said.

Mechanicville Mayor Mike Butler:

“It'll be very beneficial to all the families, especially with the young children that are food deprived that we have in the city, or they just may be short a meal or two every day. But this will be a great advantage for them to be nourished throughout the day in the summer," Butler said.

He appreciates the community-building aspect as well.

“I kind of like the people gathering there together. And they are, they'll realize people that are out there in the same boat they are and they'll develop camaraderie for one another and become a neighborhood again," Butler said.

Cody Bloomfield, with Hunger Solutions New York, which promotes knowledge of food assistance programs, says the program is a good start, but:

“I definitely think we could expand right now. The State Education Department offers posters that we co collaborate on that are in both English and Spanish, but I think expanding into more languages would be a lot more helpful," Bloomfield said.

In order for a location to qualify as a meal distribution site, Bloomfield says there needs to be demonstrated local need, with at least 50 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Bloomfield says efforts to establish similar sites continues across New York.

“In 2022, there was about 83 libraries across the street, this state that served as sites, which is just staggering. And they're always trying to help more sites come into their areas," Bloomfield said.

Saratoga County residents can text their ZIP code to 8 9 8 2 1 1 for location information.

A 2022 Siena College graduate, Alexander began his journalism career as a sports writer for Siena College's student paper The Promethean, and as a host for Siena's school radio station, WVCR-FM "The Saint." A Cubs fan, Alexander hosts the morning Sports Report in addition to producing Morning Edition. You can hear the sports reports over-the-air at 6:19 and 7:19 AM, and online on WAMC.org. He also speaks Spanish as a second language. To reach him, email ababbie@wamc.org, or call (518)-465-5233 x 190. You can also find him on Twitter/X: @ABabbieWAMC.