Insufficient transportation and a stigma surrounding benefits for low-income individuals were identified as key challenges in the fight against child hunger and poverty in Broome County during a legislative roundtable discussion Friday at the United Way in Vestal.
State lawmakers, social service providers, schools administrators and other local officials took part in the discussion, which came during Child Hunger Awareness Week.
Natasha Thompson, president and CEO of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, opened Friday’s talk with a statistic: About 56 percent of students in Broome County qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, she said. Eligibility for those meals is based on where families or individuals fall in relation to the federal poverty level.
About 24 percent of children in the county — more than 9,390 in all — are “food insecure,” meaning they live in households that struggle to put food on the table, according to the Broome County Child Hunger Task Force, which co-hosted the event with Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell, and the United Way of Broome County.
“We didn’t get to this place overnight, and we’re not going to get out of this overnight, either,” Lupardo said during Friday’s roundtable.
Part of the purpose of the discussion, she said in an interview after the event, was to hear from those working in the field, whether in the food pantries, at the United Way or with the other organizations, about the status of their work and the challenges they are facing. State Sen. Fred Akshar, R-Colesville, was also in attendance.
Several of the 17 roundtable participants pointed to transportation as a serious barrier to accessing resources for many people living in poverty in the county, especially in rural areas where public transit is sparse.
“The same families that are food insecure are almost always transportation disadvantaged,” said Jack Salo, executive director of the Rural Health Network of South Central New York. “They may not own a car, they may not own a dependable car, they may only own one car when two are needed.”
Ideas for easing the transportation barrier raised during Friday’s discussion included a greater focus on mobile food pantries, like the ones run by Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse, and putting food centers right inside schools.
Deb Faulks, director of family support services at the Family Enrichment Network, also suggested tapping into faith-based organizations to help expand the network of meal sites.
“We have no shortage of churches in our rural communities,” she said.
Faulks also raised the idea of expanding eligibility for the breakfast program to all students in an effort to reduce the stigma around free or reduced-priced meals at schools.
Some children, and even adults, are hesitant to take part in backpack programs and other means of assistance because of the stigma surrounding such initiatives, officials said.
Friday’s roundtable discussion came about two weeks after officials announced the United Way of Broome County would receive a $1.5 million grant to fight poverty.
The grant is part of the $25 million Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative, modeled after a program launched last year in Rochester charged with developing specific objectives to improve social mobility through public-private strategies.
That funding followed a $100,000 grant that Lupardo helped secure last year for the creation of a local anti-poverty task force.
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