ROCHESTER — Luis Burgos remembers having to call an emergency press conference three years ago because so few families were taking advantage of a summer meals program.
So, the city’s commissioner of recreation and youth services is happy that organizations throughout the community have joined forces this year to ensure more kids throughout the city get fed this summer.
"I’m excited because now we’re acting proactively," Burgos said. "We’re going to turn this around. Before, we were reactive. Now, we are on a strong foundation."
Burgos is a member of Summer Meals Planning Committee, a collaboration that includes the Rochester Area Community Foundation, Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency, the Rochester City School District, Foodlink and the city of Rochester.
The committee recently announced its goal of raising the annual participation in the program by 20 percent. Only about 4,700 of the 21,000 students who receive free or reduced school lunches also received meals last summer, according to a report by the Center for Governmental Research (CGR). CGR’s 117-page study, which was partially funded by the Community Fund, was released during a March 5 event at the Thomas P. Ryan Community Center. Increasing participation by 20 percent would lead to nearly half of the eligible children being fed over the summer by 2016, stated the CGR report, which is available at http://cgr.org.
A similar gap exists nationally between meals served during the school year vs. the summer, a trend the United States Department of Agriculture also is trying to turn around, according to information at www.fns.usda.gov/sfsp/summer-food-service-program-sfs. More than 21 million children receive free or reduced meals at school but only about one in 10 take advantage of federal summer meals programs, according to Kevin Concannon, USDA’s undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.
To reach that goal of feeding more children in Rochester, an increased number of school officials, parents, family members and community groups are working to boost community awareness of summer meal services and distribution sites, committee members said, which was recommended by the CGR report and the USDA.
"We are working to be more coordinated and concerted about summer meals promotion," said Rachel Pickering, director of community health initiatives for the Children’s Agenda.
Burgos said that in addition to using the Rochester City School District’s robo-call system and social media to get the word out about summer meals, the committee hopes youths themselves will help spread the word.
"We have the opportunity to work with youth to take advantage of … peer-to-peer promotion," he added. "We have to get the youth involved. They’re very good at getting the word out, be it the latest fashion trend or where a cool party is taking place."
Addressing the accessibility issue is vital, as demand for such emergency food services has been growing, according to the CGR report, which found that:
* from 2008 to 2011, the number of children receiving emergency meals at food pantries, soup kitchens or shelters rose 10 percent from May to June, another 9 percent in July and an additional 3 percent in August over the four-year period; and
* staff from the 211 nonemergency help line made about 1,500 food referrals in June of 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. The total number jumped to about 1,800 in July and August of those years.
More families also need to understand that the summer meals program is open to any child in the city and that registration is not required, Pickering said. Additionally, summer meals will be available at district sites until Aug. 23, which is a week after summer school classes end, said Jerome Underwood, the district’s senior director of youth development and family services.
"Who doesn’t love a free meal, especially one that is nutritious and healthy?" Pickering added. "And what parent wouldn’t love to give their kids breakfast and lunch every day over the summer and have it be free?"
Most importantly, children who are well-fed are going to be successful, which is what all the community partners are striving for, remarked Burgos.
"If our goal is to have healthy, active children who are achieving academically, who are developing socially and intellectually, nutrition is a foundation for that," he said. "Physical, social, intellectual, emotional, cultural (development) is all built on good nutrition."
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about summer meals, call Foodlink at 585-328-3380. City residents should call 211. A list of sites also will be available at http://rcsdk12.org.