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Feeding Tompkins Part 7: Hunger in the School System

This is Part 7 of Feeding Tompkins, an in-depth look at food insecurity in Tompkins County and a collaborative project between WRFI News, the Ithaca College Park Scholar Program, The Ithaca Voice, and Hot Potato Press.

This article was written by Alison Fromme, of Hot Potato Press, with reporting by Jolene Almendarez and the Park Scholars. Graphics were produced by Kelsey O’Connor, of The Ithaca Voice.

Almost twenty percent of kids in Tompkins County are food insecure, according to a recent study by Horn Research on childhood nutrition funded by The Park Foundation.

And although many government and community programs provide food, the report claims there is “no cohesive vision” for how child nutrition should be valued, addressed, or assessed in Tompkins County.

The cost of poor nutrition is significant: kids who experience hunger are more likely to repeat a grade in elementary school, suffer from language and motor delays, and have social and behavioral problems. But meeting the demand is challenging.

Public schools have become hubs for food distribution. Forty percent of Children in Tompkins County qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch and many kids also receive school breakfast.

Derek Goddard’s daughter is one such child. He said he receives about $300 in SNAP benefits and free lunch provided by her school is “totally important.”

Most schools require parents to file forms and prove their need to receive subsidized lunch, but three schools now offer free lunch to every student: Newfield (for grades pre-K through 5), New Roots, and TST BOCES. The removes a major barrier to access and in some cases has increased student participation by 10%.

USDA guidelines ensure that kids are offered meals that meet basic nutritional requirements, but food quality varies across schools. In the Ithaca City School District, the former nutrition director introduced more fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans into the menu, and, with the support of Cool School Food, introduced new recipes, such as Chinese Golden Croquettes with Orange Ginger Sauce, North African Red Lentils, Pasta Fazool, and Ms. Patel’s Rajma. Also, by partnering with the Youth Farm, several ICSD schools offer a “fresh snack” of fruits or vegetables that are often locally-sourced.

Some schools provide meals made from scratch, whereas others provide more processed foods. One teacher quoted in the study said, “In my opinion, quite honestly what we’re serving for breakfast and lunch leaves a lot to be desired. I have a hard time believing that it’s got to be leftover pizza for breakfast. And breakfast is high sugar stuff and we’re still serving chocolate milk at lunch.” A principal observed, “Sometimes we see get a kid get a two Lucky Charms and a chocolate milk for breakfast and lunch.”

School is only in session 180 days a year and cannot provide food all year round. For weekends and school breaks, the Backpack Program helps alleviate some food insecurity. School teachers and social workers identify kids who might benefit, or parents sign up directly through the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, which coordinates the program. Then, backpacks, usually containing about four pounds of nonperishable food, such as tuna, pasta, oatmeal, and canned fruits and vegetables, are sent home with kids. Over the summer, lunches are provided at locations across the county.

Still, throughout the year, the need for meals is great, according to Leslyn McBean Clairborne, director of GIAC, the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. “For us, it’s more than just hunger and food security issues, it’s parents getting home and not having time, or just getting off a long shift, or helping with homework. It’s not just about whether you can afford a meal but whether your parents can prepare a meal.”

Several years ago, GIAC began serving dinner, in addition to snacks, to children attending the afterschool program. Today, GIAC provides about 85 snacks and 100 dinners Monday through Friday. Families and staff members are also invited to join the children for dinner.

The meal program plays “a huge role. I can’t emphasize it enough,” McBean Claireborne said, nearly crying, and urging other after school programs to attempt similar meal services. “We’ve seen the difference it can make for families… we saw much more vibrant children.”

Efforts to feed children are clearly necessary, and many nonprofits in the county are working to reduce child food insecurity and improve nutrition.

But Horn Research points to room for improvement, stating, “The non-profits working in the area frequently have very specific agendas and philosophies, school districts have little focus other than meeting USDA guidelines for meal programs, and there are no comprehensive curricula or assessments for students’ skills or knowledge attainment related to nutrition. This lack of community vision has resulted in siloed efforts reaching pockets of children with narrowly focused goals.”

Some stakeholders have suggested that reducing obesity should be a galvanizing goal for improving child nutrition. But Horn Research disagrees. “A more fundamental motive for focusing on child nutrition is the notion that children have a fundamental human right to adequate, nutritious food and the knowledge necessary to reach their full physical potential.”

Editor’s note: GreenStar Community Projects is funded in part by The Park Foundation, and GSCP serves as the nonprofit home of Hot Potato Press.

Feature Image: Children enjoy dinner April 13 provided at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. (Jolene Almendarez/The Ithaca Voice)