Summer food grants for students advance

Lawmakers gave first-round approval March 6 to a bill that would provide grants in support of a federal summer food program for children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

LB1090, introduced by Cortland Sen. Norm Wallman, would provide $140,000 for grants to be awarded by the state Department of Education in support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.

The bill would attempt to encourage participation in the program by providing information to schools and awarding competitive grants of up to $15,000 per site to service institutions.

Wallman said service institutions such as the YWCA, summer camps and local government entities offer special summer and school vacation programs that provide food service similar to that available to children during the school year under a school breakfast or lunch program.

Under the bill, grant funds could be used for nonrecurring expenses incurred to initiate or expand services under the federal program, including:
• acquiring equipment;
• training staff;
• purchasing vehicles to transport food to schools; and
• engaging in outreach efforts to publicize programs.

An Education Committee amendment, adopted 26-0, prioritized preference for awarding grants to service institutions in the following order:
• those located within the boundaries of school districts in which 50 percent or more of the students apply and qualify for free and reduced-price lunches or located within the boundaries of a census tract in which 50 percent or more of the children fall below the poverty threshold as defined by the U. S. Department of Agriculture;
• those in which health and education activities are emphasized; and
• those that currently participate in the Summer Food Service Program.

Wallman said almost 100,000 children in Nebraska receive free and reduced-price lunch during the school year. Helping summer food programs reach more children when school is not in session should be a priority, he said.

“Over 20 percent of our state’s children are food insecure,” Wallman said, “meaning that they do not always know where their next meal is coming from.”

Omaha Sen. Brenda Council supported the bill, saying only 10 percent of eligible children in Nebraska currently benefit from the summer food program. Increasing that number to 40 percent would translate to more than $2 million in federal food reimbursement funds, she said.

Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids also supported the bill. Nebraskans tend to think of hunger as an urban problem, she said, but food insecurity is an issue in rural areas of the state as well.

“We’re talking about reaching out to virtually all areas of the state and all counties of the state,” she said.

Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege raised concerns about the message such programs send regarding parental responsibility.

“Sometimes, hunger can be an incentive to take responsibility and do the things that need to be done,” he said.

Council said the bill would benefit working poor parents across the state who are struggling to feed their children.

“We’re not rewarding people for being irresponsible,” she said. “This is to provide for the nutritional needs of youngsters in the state.”

LB1090 advanced to select file on a 25-0 vote.

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