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Sen. Gillibrand, Rep. Tonko Press For Universal School Meals Program In South Colonie

U.S. Senator Kiresten Gillibrand was joined by fellow Democrat Congressman Paul Tonko at Saddlewood Elementary School.
Dave Lucas
U.S. Senator Kiresten Gillibrand was joined by fellow Democrat Congressman Paul Tonko at Saddlewood Elementary School.

U.S Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was in Colonie today, pushing to make the Universal School Meals program permanent.

Gillibrand was joined by fellow Democrat Congressman Paul Tonko at Saddlewood Elementary School. Gillibrand says the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 would make free school meals for all students permanent.

“Providing universal school meals during the pandemic has made an incredible difference to students and to families. In April the USDA announced that it would continue to provide meals through the 2021 to 2022 academic year and extend the pandemic EBT program, giving millions of families a lifeline and peace of mind for the next school year. But we have to go much further. Over the past several years, we've seen a significant increase in families qualifying for free and reduced lunch programs across the Capital Region. If the pandemic waivers are allowed to expire, families of four who live on just $34,000 a year would not be able to participate. We can't go back to a system where only some children get to eat for free, families are burdened with paperwork or school lunch debt, and children don't participate in the free meal programs because they're embarrassed about what their classmates will think.”

Gillibrand says though the Department of Agriculture is providing free school meals through COVID-19 waivers through the 2021-2022 school year, she wants to ease hunger year-round.

“We also know that families who need help putting food on the table during the year will also need help during the summer months. This bill would provide that by making every community eligible for the Summer Food Service Program and by adding an extra $60 per child per month to EBT through the summer EBT program, will help these families purchase the nutritious foods they need.”

Officials say even before the COVID-19 pandemic, over 30% of students in the South Colonie Central School District received free and reduced lunch.

Sherry Tomasky of Hunger Solutions New York says the barriers to free lunches must come down.

“In New York state about 3600 schools currently provide universal meals to all students. But hundreds of other schools are eligible, but are unable to do so because of the financial constraints and the barriers inherent in the program. And beyond that, many students who may be eligible for free and reduced price meals are unable to access them. Sometimes through barriers such as paperwork, or the more insidious barriers like stigma or embarrassment. Many families do not want to apply, even though they need the assistance, and low income students in high school often drop out of the program where we see participation fall because they understand the perception of the program. Eligible students sometimes miss deadlines or bear the brunt of school meal debt that they are then burdened with when they have to pay full price for meals.”

Tonko, from the 20th district, says the legislation would counter inequity.

“You know, before the pandemic, it's fair to say, that there were inequities and that there was food insecurity. But the pandemic exacerbated many of those statistics and those situations. It illuminated a lot of the injustice and unfairness that is part of our world. And so this legislation, the Universal School Meal Program, is about stamping out some of that inequity and some of that unfairness.”

Gillibrand is pushing for the inclusion of the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization currently being negotiated by the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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