A little boy in kindergarten is so hungry he tries to take an extra peanut butter and jelly sandwich from the school cafeteria and slip it in his backpack — even though he’s already getting one for free.
Another little boy has such a gnawing emptiness in his belly, he can’t wait to eat the fresh tomatoes he just got at the church food pantry — so he sits down on the church steps and chomps away.
Then there’s the child who’s too ashamed to tell the people handing out the food at a free meals program that his family doesn’t have enough at home. So he keeps saying he’s not hungry because he wants to bring the lunch home.
A record number of children in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties are hungry, and these examples are just a few of them. Forty-one thousand public school children in the three counties — nearly half of all students — must rely on our schools to do what many of us take for granted — eat.
This means that nearly one of every two children needs the help of free or reduced-price meals in our schools. That’s an increase of 12 percent, or some 4,400 students, from just five years ago.
Hunger is so common that nurses routinely stock crackers, peanut butter and juices for hungry kids. Backpacks full of food are handed out on weekends because kids just don’t have enough food at home — even in an affluent district like Warwick.
All of which means that for thousands of local kids and their parents, the Great Recession is far from over.
“It means the recession is only over for rich people,” says Eileen Goodman, director of food service for the Middletown School District, where three-quarters of the students receive free or reduced-price meals.
It isn’t only urban districts like Middletown, Monticello or Newburgh that have scores of hungry kids. Suburban districts, like Chester, have seen the amount of needy children rise, from about 20 percent five years ago, to nearly one-third of all kids today. Even tiny, rural Eldred in Sullivan County has had the percentage of its hungry children soar, from about 1 in 4 in 2009 to one-third of all students today.
Nowhere to eat
When summer arrives and schools close, many of these hungry kids have nowhere to eat.
So if they don’t go to summer school, they must rely on the federal Summer Food Service Program, which is administered by local school districts, often in partnership with area nonprofits like the YMCA.
Even as the number of needy kids soars, that summer program doesn’t come close to feeding all of the hungry children. Less than one-quarter of all needy kids in our region who eat free and reduced-price meals throughout the school year are able to take advantage of the program. This is despite the fact the number of local sites has more than doubled in the past four years, from 22 to 55 — and a district like Monticello serves some 4,000 breakfasts and lunches per day at rural sites in Bethel and Forestburgh and more urban spots in Monticello.
“It still isn’t enough,” says Michelle Golden of the statewide anti-hunger organization Hunger Solutions.
One big reason the Summer Food Service Program doesn’t reach the majority of our hungry kids is that a school district must have at least 50 percent of its students receiving free and reduced-price meals to be eligible.
So, if you’re poor and happen to live in a rural area without a summer food site – and you don’t have transportation to a neighboring district with one – you’re out of luck – and food.
That’s why a program in a sprawling, needy district like Monticello can serve those 4,000 kids. It can bus kids in out-of-the-way district spots to its various sites.
“If it wasn’t for this program, kids wouldn’t be eating,” says Melinda Gwiordowksi, who oversees the Monticello School District/Middletown YMCA summer meals program at the Town of Thompson Park in Sullivan County, which feeds 275 kids, many of whom had never seen vegetables like broccoli or beets before the program.
Getting those kids to eat those vegetables (often chopped up in salads) is another reason the program is so worthwhile, says Monticello Food Service Director Andy Yeomans.
Food stamps cuts hurt
The need is especially acute, say child hunger advocates, since SNAP benefits — or food stamps — were last year reduced by about $10 per person per month for a family of three. Plus, many summer school programs that would normally serve lunch have been cut, thanks to slashed budgets. And those close to the programs, like Chris Brinckerhoff, assistant superintendent of Middletown’s Parks and Recreation Department, say they’re still feeding many children of working families who just don’t make enough money to pay all their bills and have enough to spend on the food that’s provided by schools the rest of the year.
This is why U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are proposing a law that would lower the threshold for summer meals program eligibility from 50 percent of the children receiving free and reduced meals to 40 percent.
It would also increase transportation in rural districts, reduce paperwork for public-private partnerships to offer the meals and provide an evening meal for kids in evening programs.
“Every child that is hungry should have food year-round,” said Gillibrand, who appears at the Town of Thompson Park Monday to promote the bills.
Bill won’t change reality
Still, even if that bill — part of the proposed Child Nutrition Act — does what countless others haven’t and clears a bitterly divided Congress, it still won’t come close to changing a reality that is as hard and unforgiving as the piece of plywood atop a bathtub that one hungry child must call a bed, according to Alexis Eggleton, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of the Town of Wallkill:
Too many kids are hungry.
Kids like the little boy who comes to Academy Avenue Park in Middletown with a shopping bag so he can get several boxes of Golden Grahams cereal and chocolate milk for him and his family.
Or the toddlers — maybe 3 and 4 years old — whose grandma brings them to the Newburgh pool every summer day, just so they can nibble on a turkey sandwich.
“No child should be hungry in this country,” says Eggleton, whose organization serves 60,000 meals per year to needy kids. “But we notice that more and more of them are.”
How to qualify as a summer food site
The most common way to become eligible is to prove that the location where meals are served is in a high-need area. These are the criteria:
• At least 50 percent of the students in the school district serving the area must qualify for free or reduced price school meals.
• An area or organization in the area may also qualify if it meets certain census data. To see if your area qualifies, go online and search for “Summer Food Target Mapper.”
• If a location doesn’t meet the above criteria, there is still a chance to serve summer food – as long as the organization, such as a camp or summer program, is serving low-income kids and can prove at least 50 percent of those kids qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.
To see if you qualify for free or reduced price meals, contact your school district.
To volunteer at a summer program, call the meal site or visit hungersolutionsny.org