Gillibrand bill would include dinner in food services program
Summer Meals Act would expand services in community centers
With the help of a group of children, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand came to the Sunset Park Recreation Center on Tuesday to announce legislation she is sponsoring to expand the federal government’s Summer Food Service program to provide evening meals in addition to breakfast and lunch.
“You don’t want to go to bed hungry, right?” Gillibrand (D-New York) asked the kids at a press conference at the recreation center, located inside Sunset Park on Seventh Avenue and 43rd Street.
The bill Gillibrand is sponsoring, the Summer Meals Act, is set to be debated in the Senate next month at the same time the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a 2010 law that requires that meals served to children in schools contain fruits and vegetables, is set to expire. Gillibrand said she wants to renew the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, expand that law’s reach and get the Summer Meals Act passed.
Among other things, the Summer Meals Act seeks to expand the number of people who eat free meals at community centers in July and August by lowering the threshold of eligibility. Under the bill, areas of the country with 40 percent or more of children from low income families would be eligible to participate. The current threshold is 50 percent.
Nonprofits and community-based organizations partner with the federal government to provide the meals.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and would also oversee the Summer Meals Act if it became law.
Currently, 31 million students across the country participate in the national school lunch program, according to Gillibrand’s office.
Gillibrand estimated that the Summer Meals Act would give 3.2 million more children a chance to get free meals.
In New York City, 1.7 million children receive free or reduced cost lunches during the school year, yet only 27 percent have access to summer meals, according to Gillibrand’s office.
The Summer Meals Act would also provide an option for kids who take part in evening programs at community centers to have an evening meal.
“As we debate child nutrition standards, we need to make access and serving healthy food in our schools a priority,” said Gillibrand, who is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “In addition, the Summer Meals Act would give more children access to quality meals when school is out for the summer by strengthening the U.S.D.A. summer nutrition program. No child should have to go without a healthy meal.”
Sheena Wright, president and CEO of United Way New York, endorsed the Summer Meals Act and said the legislation is important because it will give families at the financial edge a chance to make sure their kids are well fed. Wright said the cost of food has increased 59 percent in recent years, leading many families to gravitate to fast food restaurants for a more affordable option.
“Good food costs more. Bad food costs less,” she said.
Sunset Park residents struggle with the high cost of food, according to Councilmember Carlos Menchaca. “We’re feeling it here in a big way in Sunset Park,” he said.
Menchaca (D-Sunset Park-Red Hook) said that on a busy day at the Sunset Park Recreation Center, 700 people come and eat a free lunch. “They come, they swim in the pool, they eat lunch and then they go back in the pool,” he said.
The Recreation Center, built in 1936 as Works Progress Administration (WPA) project during the Roosevelt Administration, is located next door to an Olympic-size outdoor pool that was also built in the 1930s.
Assemblymember Felix Ortiz (D-Sunset Park-Red Hook) said it was in society’s best interest to provide food programs to children in school and during the summer. “Let’s make sure as a nation that our children get the nutritious fuel they need to grow and develop and succeed as productive students and future workers,” he said.
Gillibrand, who is the mother of two young sons, ages 11 and 7, seemed to be enjoying interacting with the kids at the recreation center. At one point she asked the youngsters if they would rather eat French fries or carrots. In unison, the children answered, “Carrots!” The senator smiled broadly.
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