GENEVA — U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called on local kids Friday to help make the case for expanded summer food programs.
“Have you ever been hungry, ever?” she asked the 17 children gathered around her podium at the Boys and Girls Club on Goodman Street.
Nearly every hand went up.
Gillibrand then asked the kids to imagine feeling that way all the time. In Ontario County, 4,000 students receive free or reduced price school lunches, she told them. In the summer, only 300 of those students receive food.
Gillibrand was rounding — the actual numbers are 4,077 and 272. But that made her next question — how many students do not get lunch during the summer — easier for the kids to figure out.
After some hemming and hawing, the students and the senator arrived at the answer: 3,700.
“That’s not so good, is it?” Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand was in town to promote a bill called the Summer Meals Act. She said it would allow more kids to receive food during the summer through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.
Currently, only communities where more than 50 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches can participate in the program. The bill would reduce that threshold to 40 percent, making an additional 3.2 million children eligible nationwide.
In the Rochester-Finger Lakes region, an additional 9,104 students would become eligible.
“Many children receive their only meal at school during the year, and when school is out for the summer, they go hungry,” Gillibrand said. “The bipartisan Summer Meals Act would help combat this problem by strengthening the USDA summer nutrition program to help more children across America access quality meals during the summer months. Every child who is hungry should have food.”
Gillibrand said the bill also would reduce the paperwork for public-private partnerships that participate in the program, offer kids transportation to summer meal sites and provide a dinner to kids who attend evening programs.
Jeanette Batiste, CEO of Foodlink, joined Gillibrand at the Boys and Girls Club. She said her agency sent 1 million pounds of food to Ontario County last year and called Gillibrand’s bill an important piece of legislation.
“In Ontario County, more than 4,000 children do not know where their next meal is going to come from,” she said. “That’s about 18 percent of the population.”
State Sen. Ted O’Brien, D-55 of Penfield, and Jim Gerling, chair of the Boys and Girls Club’s board, also offered their support.
“I wish to express our appreciation that you chose our facility here at Goodman Street to speak to your concern for the health and welfare of our children,” Gerling said.
Kids cannot prepare for bright futures if their present involves hunger, he added.
Gillibrand said her bill has support from members of both parties in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
She hopes it can pass this year, but she thinks it’s more likely to happen next year. In the meantime, she wants to use events like her Geneva press conference to build awareness and create a movement aimed at providing more and better food to children.
Gillibrand did not say exactly where the money for the expanded program would come from.
“All funding is an issue of priorities, and I think [feeding kids is among] the highest,” she said.