Contributed by Sue Dalandan, Coordinator, Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council
Have you seen someone who is food insecure today? Is it the cashier at the store? Is it your parent’s care aide? It could be your daycare worker, school aide, your neighbor’s children, or the elderly gentleman who opens the door every Sunday for you at church. The face of food insecurity is often invisible.
According to Feeding America, hunger in America increased by 13 million people in just one year. Every county has residents who are food insecure. The Lehigh Valley has a close and varied supply of fresh, healthy foods, but the ability to afford fresh, healthy food is a problem for many. The 2016 Health Profile of the Lehigh Valley reported that 12% of the families living in Northampton County and 13% of the families living in Lehigh County experience food insecurity (Health Care Council of the Lehigh Valley). The impact is far worse for children. Nearly 1 in 3 (27%) of our children in Northampton County and more than 2 in 5 (37%) of our children in Lehigh County are living below 160% of the Federal Poverty Level. These children are eligible for free and reduced lunch and the Summer Foods Program. Are the Lehigh Valley’s children not well fed?
Here is where policy impacts quality of life and well-being. The Summer Food Service Program is based on blanket eligibility for a school district when 50% or more of a school district’s children are eligible for free or reduced lunches. How does this translate into real numbers and real lives? Small school districts can serve the Summer Food Service Program for their children if the district is predominantly low-income. That could be 50 children. A large urban school district with primarily low-income families can is eligible, so Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton school districts all qualify.
Now let’s look at a glaring example of policy failing our children and their families. The Parkland School District Food Service Director, along with Food Service Directors of other self-operating districts, approached the Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council. Our task is working together to find solutions for their children experiencing hunger in the summer and through the holidays. In 2014, only 10% of students in the Parkland School District were eligible for free or reduced lunches, so the district is not eligible for the Summer Food Service Program. Ten percent does not sound like a lot, but real numbers in this large school district equal more than 500 children. Changes in the school district in one year increased eligibility to 22.69%. This represents 1,675 children. These eligible children are scattered across the large school district. Even using census district eligibility, the school district cannot qualify for the Summer Food Service Program. How, then, do we ensure that these children and their families are not food insecure? What factors contributed to this situation and how do we change them? How can we serve children and families in school districts that are eligible but do not utilize the programs?
The Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council is working to find answers to these questions. The Council has a singular vision: All people in the Lehigh Valley can eat healthy and nutritious food that is available locally, with regular and independent access and supported by a thriving local food economy that uses our resources sustainably. The need to invest in food systems is just as important as investing in the public infrastructures of housing, health, and transportation. These infrastructures are entirely interdependent, and local policy determines whether they function well for a vibrant, healthy community. Recognizing this, the Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council formed nine working groups. Each of these working groups is tackling a piece of the problem that can be improved through local policy development and then working together to improve our community. Please, join us, as we build from the ground up.
For more information about the Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council or to get involved, contact Sue Dalandan at (610) 691-5620. “Like” or follow us on our Facebook page.