Rural Kids Struggle Under Summer Lunch Program Rules

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During summer vacation, many low-income kids depend on free lunch programs. Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul visited a summer meal site in Elmira Thursday to talk up state support for such efforts, but programs in rural Chemung county still struggle with a big challenge.

Kids who participate in the government’s free summer meal program must show up at a designated site during scheduled hours to get their food. That can be a problem in rural areas.

“During the school year, kids can hop on a school bus,” says Jonathan Fuller, who works at the Food Bank of the Southern Tier in Chemung county. “They can come to a centralized location at a school, and that’s where they get their meal service. During the summers, you’ve got 4,000 square miles where the kids are living, and a lot of them don’t have transportation to get to a centralized location to consume those meals.”

Fuller wants the regulation loosened. He’d like to reach rural kids in other ways. One idea: a backpack program. The Food Bank would send several days’ worth of meals home with kids at one time.

Despite increased participation this year, Fuller says the Food Bank still reaches no more than 15 percent of the area’s needy kids.

“We’re doing better, but I think very few people would agree that 15 percent is a metric of success when feeding kids,” he says.

The law that governs federal food programs is up for renewal this year. Fuller says that means now is the time to make a change.

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