While strides have been made in school meals programs across Pennsylvania in recent years, a range of experts said at a recent Senate panel meeting that more work is still needed.
Members of the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee took testimony from officials working in the areas of food and education.
State Sen. Wayne Langerhalc Jr., R-Richland Township, said he wanted to dig deeper into the issues surrounding food accessibility in the education setting after visiting summer meal sites this past season in such communities as Johnstown.
“I wanted to get some input and some valuable testimony here,” Langerhalc said. “There’s no reason why any child in this commonwealth should go hungry, period.”
While student hunger was a focal point of the committee’s hearing, so, too, was the issue of food waste – an issue that reportedly was exacerbated in 2012 when federal guidelines were modified on the do’s and don’ts of what can be served to children.
“It makes it a challenge for food service directors,” said Sid Clark, business manager with the Shanksville-Stonycreek School District, who was among the speakers offering up testimony.
Revamped U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements under former President Barack Obama’s administration required school meals adhere to a number of standards, including a daily serving of at least one fruit or vegetable. It was an effort at the time touted as tackling rising obesity rates.
Clark said Shanksville-Stonycreek has explored different options to keep food waste down in recent years.
One method, he said, that has been fruitful has been simple marketing, in terms of displaying and conveying what types of food offerings are available in a specific day. The tactic, he said, was akin to the efforts a retailer would use.
“We needed to be able to attract our kids,” Clark said. “We had to find ways to bring them back and excite them.”
Mirroring a trend seen across the U.S., a growing number of Pennsylvania school districts – Shanksville-Stonycreek being among them – are expanding the range of offerings available before, during and after the school day.
Within the past year, Clark said Shanksville-Stonycreek has seen student participation in breakfast programs increase from 30 to 100 reimbursable meals. A so-called “grab and go” system that gives lower income students the option of getting breakfast and eating it elsewhere, beyond the cafeteria, is credited with the success.
The summer meal programs have also grown across Pennsylvania in recent years as part of an effort to ensure lower income students are receiving food when school is not in session.
Kelsey Gross, child nutrition program supervisor with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, said summer meal programs have been invaluable. She called on lawmakers to continue offering up funding and other resources when the regular school year wraps.
“Not only does the summer food service provide nutritious meals, it also builds community and creates safe spaces for children to play and learn,” Gross said.
While students in urban settings, such as Pittsburgh, typically have accessibility to a summer meal program, Gross said it is lacking elsewhere in the state, particularly in rural areas, where transportation can pose challenges.
Cheryl Cook, deputy secretary with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said the issues of food and education go hand-in-hand.
“Food is essential in education,” Cook said. “It is what powers the educational system. But at the same time, education in food is essential.”
Cook also used her testimony to laud lawmakers for passing Gov. Tom Wolf’s Farm Bill. Portions of the bill are already in motion, Cook said, including an urban agriculture program that offered a $500,000 pot of money to grant recipients.
More than 900,000 applications were received, Cook confirmed, with a number of the applications going toward food desert initiatives in areas where fresh produce is not abundantly available in urban areas.
“If we keep going with that kind of enthusiasm, I know these kinds of programs will be a success,” Cook said.