PITTSBURGH — Children eating breakfast at Jefferson Recreation Center had a special visitor July 15.
“What are you having? Apple juice?” said U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, as he walked from table to table in the rec center on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
Vilsack and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., toured the site to see the impact of the recently signed federal Keep Kids Fed Act. The bipartisan legislation extended flexibilities for summer meal programs through September and temporarily increased reimbursement rates for meals for the coming school year.
“Over 90,000 youngsters currently participate in the summer feeding program in the commonwealth on a day-to-day basis,” Vilsack said, in a press conference following the walk-through. “That’s 90,000 kids who are receiving nourishment. That’s 90,000 kids who, because of that nourishment, are going to be better prepared to start learning when they resume school in August or September.”
Pamela Knight knows the importance of a good meal and a safe place to play and exist. As the director of Jefferson Recreation Center, she oversees the summer and after-school programs where they keep the kids on the North Side “busy and off the street,” she said.
There are summer camps from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and other activities until the center closes at 6 p.m. The center has a playground and a basketball court. The kids do crafts and play games, Knight said.
Jefferson, one of the city’s 10 recreation centers, offers all children breakfast and lunch free of charge through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program in partnership with Pittsburgh Public Schools. A turkey and cheese pocket sandwich with milk and apple juice was on the menu the morning of Vilsack’s visit.
Even when the kids age out of the program offerings and leave the neighborhood, some of them still come back, Knight said. She makes sure to have other food for them, too, because they aren’t covered by the USDA programs anymore.
“I have kids that catch two buses, from East Liberty, from Homewood. I have a boy that comes from Monroeville. Because they came here when they were younger,” she said. “This is their safe haven. This is where they need to be to be OK.”
Fight against inflation
The flexibilities in how meals can be distributed — allowed through the Keep Kids Fed Act — won’t benefit the city’s programs this summer, Kathryn Vargas, the city’s director of parks and recreation, as they’re already feeding children through congregate meal sites. But the waivers did help through the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they could help in the future.
“We were able to serve close to 700,000 meals from March 2020 to September 2021,” she said. “The reason we were able to do that is because the USDA and the PA State Department of Agriculture and PDE added flexibility to the program to make it something that became more accessible to families at a time where the need was greatest.”
It would be great if the flexibility to allow non-congregate feeding for USDA meal programs could become the norm, Vargas said. Flexibility makes food more accessible. The Keep Kids Fed Act is a step in the right direction in recognizing that.
“It maintains their dignity and empowers families to decide how they’re going to eat,” she said.
Vargas said they’re also being hit by the increased food costs and supply chain issues, which the new legislation is aimed at combating.
“When school starts, because of this act, schools are going to receive an additional payment and reimbursement rate that’s going to allow them to deal with the cost of food so that they don’t have an interruption of the school meal program,” Vilsack said.
The USDA also announced on July 7 a second allocation of Supply Chain Assistance Funds, to the tune of $943 million, to help schools purchase foods for school meal programs.
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service first pushed out $1 billion in funding to state agencies last December to alleviate the impacts of supply chain issues while trying to meet federal program guidelines.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at email@example.com or 330-337-3419.)
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