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Officials Fight To Protect Healthier Food Standards And Programs For Schools

Speaking today at the Albany School of the Humanities, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Paul Tonko vowed to fight to protect healthier food standards and programs for schools as Congress prepares to debate child nutrition standards. 

Gillibrand and Tonko, both Democrats, announced bipartisan legislation to provide more children with nutritious meals throughout the summer, a measure that would give more kids access to healthy summer meals by expanding the U.S. Department of Agriculture Summer Food Service Program.  "Because for too many of our kids the only healthful meal they get each day is part of their free or reduced-priced lunch that they get at school. Here in New York there are 1.7 million children who rely on this service, yet over the summer barely more than a quarter of our kids have access to those meals," said Gillibrand.

Congress is debating child nutrition standards and school meals as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is set to expire in September along with the authorization for six of the USDA’s core child nutrition programs including the National School Lunch and the Summer Food Service Programs.

Congressman Tonko says he has toured the summer nutrition programs for children extensively.   "They're powerful. To see the inclusiveness of those programs with education and enhancement programs that accompany these efforts, to be able to watch how they're showing up and getting sound nutrition opportunities, is an encouraging fit of development for our children."

Gillibrand says the legislation would also help improve nutrition and enhance learning in underserved areas.  "The Summer Meals Act would lift the burden on hard-working parents who have to work through dinner time.  Our bill would give kids up to three daily meals if they need them."

Throughout the city of Albany, 48 feeding sites were operational last year. Mayor Kathy Sheehan says every child should be given the opportunity to succeed.  "...and we can't do that if children are hungry. As any mom knows, when children are hungry they're grouchy, and when kids are grouchy, they don't want to learn, they don't want to listen, because they really are fighting off - sometimes they don't even realize what's causing it - but their body is screaming out for nutrition, to be fed."

The program is safe for this summer; Gillibrand says the bill would re-authorize programs to avert any delay in services.    "You have to remember, most members of Congress are fairly well-off. They tend to be affluent, they tend to have never needed anything in their lives, and they don't empathize enough with Americans who do struggle."

Local pastor Charlie Muller has been feeding hungry kids for nearly two decades.  "We're excited about this bill going forward. And we're excited about 19 years ago when I served white bread, and now I'm serving a healthy meal to a child and healthy peanut butter, and we see the kids thriving, we see them playing..."

Gillibrand is also pushing to expand purchases from local food producers, particularly fresh fruit and vegetable growers and suppliers, to provide nutritious school meals and also raise students’ awareness of local agriculture.

Across the country, 31 million students participate in the national school lunch program, and 22 million students receive free or reduced school lunch – meaning their families lives at or near the poverty line – but only one in seven of these high need children have access to summer meals. In New York, there are more than 1.7 million children who receive free or reduced school lunch, but only 27 percent have access to summer meals.

On a typical school day, there were over 73,669 students in the Capital Region who ate a free or reduced priced school lunch, but over the summer only 11,154 children participated in the summer lunch program. Senator Gillibrand’s legislation would expand eligibility to at least an additional 6,089 students attending more than 31 schools in the region. In Albany County there were 19,157 students receiving lunch but only 3,597 children participating in the summer lunch program. Senator Gillibrand’s legislation would expand eligibility to at least an additional 1081 students attending 6 schools in Albany County.

The Summer Meals Act:

The Summer Meals Act would help more children access healthy food by lowering the threshold to allow areas with 40 percent or more of students receiving free or reduced lunch to be eligible for the program, rather than the current threshold of 50 percent. Senator Gillibrand’s legislation would expand eligibility to 3.2 million children.

This legislation would also reduce the paperwork burden for meal program sponsors who want to participate in the program, provide children with transportation to the summer meals sites, and would also offer the option of an additional meal to children who attend evening programs.

The USDA Summer Food Service Program provides low-income children under age 18, who would normally receive free or reduced school lunch, with quality, nutritious food during the summer. Several programs run in tandem with educational enrichment programs to keep children engaged and safe during the summer months. Currently, there are more than 50 national organizations that have endorsed the Summer Meals Act legislation.

Child Nutrition Standards Set To Expire

The most recent Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) process concluded when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) was signed into law on December 13, 2010. The HHFKA made substantial improvements to Child Nutrition by:

·         Increasing reimbursement rates paid for school meals by $0.06.

·         Updating school nutrition standards and standards for all food sold in competition with school lunches such as food sold in vending machines.

·         Encouraging farm-to-school initiatives and other obesity reducing programs;

·         Introducing new physical activity standards;

·         Expanding support for food service programs to include summer programs, afterschool, and outside of school programs;

·         Establishing new guidelines for school food safety;

The HHFKA and its child nutrition standards are set to expire on September 30, 2015. As Congress begins to debate renewing these programs Senator Gillibrand will be advocating for the following priorities:

·         Give more children healthy summer meals by expanding access to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Summer Food Service Program.

·         Reduce red tape and make it easier for existing after school meal providers to sponsor Summer Meal programs.

·         Strengthen the ties between farmers, producers, and meal service providers by bolstering Farm-to-School programs.

·         Preserve existing nutrition standards including the requirement of fresh fruits and vegetables every day.

·         Help school nutrition professionals meet their professional standard requirements, support peer mentorship programs, and provide grants for improved kitchen equipment that enable the preparation of healthy, appetizing meals that children will truly enjoy.

·         Improve student participation rates in the School Breakfast Program.

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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