This summer, families and kids in need of a summer meal will be able to text “food” to 877-877 to receive information on where a nearby summer feeding program is, thanks to the No Kid Hungry program.
When one of my friends posted information about this simple, innovative solution on social media, it was blasted with negative comments, referring to “these parents” as “lazy” and “drug-addicted.” As if our own neighbors are “the Other.” Even in this day and age when we have greater access to information on our working poor, single-parent households, parents with mental or physical disabilities or chronic illness, grandparent-run households, underemployment and unemployment, mental health, families in crisis and more, a punishing stigma still hovers around kids in need of a meal.
It’s not just Kingston and not just Ulster County. It’s everywhere. The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) recently released some startling numbers that we all kind of know are true, but still flinch to hear: more than two out of five children live in low-income families. The Cornell Program on Applied Demographics updated a 2013 report in 2015 that detailed Ulster County as containing over 24,000 families estimated to be in poverty, involving over 33,000 kids. Data USA reports that Kingston’s own poverty rate is 18.1 percent, with a median household income of a very modest $43,511. That’s us. We are “the Other.”
These days, we talk about “hunger” not in terms of rumbling bellies, but food insecurity. Food security, as defined by the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security, is “the condition in which all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” My title at my day job is “Food Security Development Manager,” working on regional food security initiatives spanning across multiple counties, including Ulster. I regularly work with food pantries, soup kitchens, after-school feeding programs and homeless shelters for a food rescue network called FeedHV. It is such an honor to work closely with the boots-to-the-ground foot soldiers in food security, on the frontlines and in the trenches.
One time I was visiting a motel being used as emergency housing for families, and I saw a room’s door wide open with a young teenaged mom sitting on the stoop of her motel room doorway, crying her eyes out, while her baby rolled around behind her in a walker, chewing on a plastic hanger. I knew I couldn’t solve any problem that brought her to those tears, but I knew a nice hearty meal could make her feel better for a little while and even help her focus on solving them herself.
People’s Place Thrift Store and Food Pantry in Kingston offers a pragmatic and unique approach, which is essentially a supplemental bag of groceries for the week loaded with balanced, whole-grain healthy and protein-rich summer breakfast and lunch foods, healthy eating-themed coloring books and information for parents. Bag Summer Hunger — “Because hunger doesn’t take a vacation”— is a program offered at People’s Place that provides additional food to low-income school age children who receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch during the school year. “Parents have a terrible time absorbing the additional food costs incurred when the academic year ends, giving way to hunger, malnutrition and anxiety,” said People’s Place executive director, Christine Hein. “The hope is that this program will contribute to healthy growth and development so that students are better able to learn when they return to school in September.”
In 2017, its third year, it provided over 60,690 meals to children in danger of returning back to school malnourished. “We have seen the importance of this program from their three summer seasons and as word spreads about the program, the demand continues to grow,” said Hein.
The program began in 2015, providing over 31,000 meals to children from Saugerties to Ellenville to Kingston to Highland. “Parents expressed the deep appreciation for the assistance this program provided in feeding their children,” she said. In 2017, this program grew to provide over 60,000 meals and over 40,000 snacks over the 10-week program.
Bag Summer Hunger is supported by the Farm Fresh Initiative of Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley — in the spirit of full disclosure — the very important funding that also supports the program I administer as well.
Local summer meal feeding efforts are being heralded by Family of Woodstock, the sponsor for the state Education Department’s Summer Foods Service Program (SFSP) in the Kingston area, having recently expanded the program this year to include three new sites. The SFSP is a Child Nutrition Program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In New York State, the State Education Department (SED) administers the program. The SFSP provides reimbursement for nutritious meals served to children in lower income areas at no cost when school is out.
“We think it’s critical,” said Michael Berg, Family’s executive director. “There are a number of families in the mid-town area that cannot respace school breakfast and lunch, and we felt we needed to help. And providing an adequate school breakfast and lunch, we are helping the community as a whole, especially at a time when kids are most active.” In Kingston, we will have newly built and equipped kitchen at the Hodge Center, so we can more easily do the numbers of meals we are committing to.”
In 2017, Family served 5,175 breakfasts and 3,072 lunches to over 350 kids over an approximately eight- to nine-week period. He said that getting free or reduced lunches would often avoid the stigma by not seeking out food when they needed it. “The fact we can serve everyone means that everyone who needs it will get it,” Berg added.
“Meals must be served in low-income communities where at least 50 percent of children are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals or in other locations where at least 50 percent of the children enrolled in a specific program are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals,” explained Kerry Wolfeil, team leader for Family’s Child Care Services. Children 18 years of age and younger are eligible to participate in the SFSP, she said.
This summer feeding program is not confined to kids, she added. Anyone over 18 years old who might be physically or mentally disabled and participating in a public or nonprofit private school program established for children with these disabilities may also participate in this program. Kingston sites include MCA Camp Starfish, Hodge Center, Center for Creative Education, Read & Write, Boys & Girls Club, Kingston Library, Ulster Community Action and African Roots.
One may also visit summerfoodrocks.org to find summer feeding for kids near you.