Brubaker photo

Mike Brubaker

One in every five children in Pennsylvania is hungry. From September through June, our schools do a good job of feeding them. But what happens in summertime?

Starting this week, Lancaster County children in need will find meals at 48 sites run by seven summer feeding sponsors — Arbor Place, Boys and Girls Club of Lancaster, Conestoga Valley Christian Community Services, Hands Across the Street, Lancaster Country Day School, Lancaster Recreation Commission and San Juan Bautista Catholic Church.

These sites will be serving more than 90,000 meals and healthy snacks in 12 weeks, giving you some indication of just how many young people face hunger every day in our county.

These and other hard facts have driven me to work to eliminate hunger, and in particular child hunger, in our state.

My private equity and real estate firm just issued the third of what we hope will be a long series of challenges to Lancastrians to step up and help end hunger in our food-rich county.

Our first challenge was to join the Gunterberg Foundation to help raise more than $50,000 for Crispus Attucks Community Center to help keep open its lunch café for those in need and offer skills-based training to help them attain self-sufficiency. The second was to help the newly opened Food Hub, built and run by Lancaster County Council of Churches to facilitate the collection and distribution of fresh produce and food in Lancaster County. The third challenge is a call to match funds for the innovative PowerPacks Program which sends nutritious food and produce home with children for weekends and vacations.

I am proud to chair Hunger-Free Lancaster County, a coalition that seeks to ensure sustainable access to three healthy meals a day for every Lancastrian by 2018. We have committed to build awareness and infrastructure that will ensure access to nutritious meals for everyone in the county — to close a gap that currently amounts to 7.2 million meals each year.

We are working hard to develop universal access to after-the-bell school breakfast, increase after-school meals, and build up summer feeding programs. By doing these things, we intend to provide an additional 568,550 meals in Lancaster County schools each year.

Our initiative is building on existing programs, such as Lighten Up Lancaster, school farms, and farm-to-school meal provisioning.

We are blessed to be doing this work in the wake of the 2010 passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the 2010 federal law that thankfully addressed our children’s critical nutrition needs, and expanded the hunger safety net for millions of American children.

This new law strengthens the existing National School Lunch Program, which provides nutritionally balanced low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. What makes the NSLP unique is that it allows all children attending eligible schools to participate, not just the low-income kids. This removes the stigma that attaches to the poor kids by treating all children alike. So we achieve two critical goals at once: We strengthen healthy eating habits of all schoolchildren, and we make sure the hungry among us are fed nutritious meals with dignity. (Sometimes it’s the only one they get each day.)

Earlier this month, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that, nationally, 95 percent of schools are successfully meeting the updated meal standards. So our kids now are getting more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other healthy foods.

Shockingly, Pennsylvania ranks sixth from the bottom on this scale, at 83 percent.

We have heard anecdotal evidence about the program’s failures — that food service sells fewer meals, trash cans are fuller than they used to be, and that kids just don’t like the new food.

But what are the facts?

The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut released a study in March that looked at middle schools in 12 urban low-income districts from  spring 2012 through spring 2014.

The Rudd report concluded that students reacted positively to the new lunches, consumed more fruit, threw away less of the entrees and vegetables, and consumed the same amount of milk. Overall, the revised meal standards and policies appear to have significantly lowered “plate waste” in school cafeterias.

Last year, a group of 19 past presidents of the School Nutrition Association wrote an open letter to members of the Appropriations Committees in both chambers of the U.S. Congress urging them to “reject calls for waivers, maintain strong standards in all schools.”

Now, Secretary Vilsack urges us to stay the course.

I, as past chairman of the Pennsylvania Senate Agriculture Committee and an agronomist, ask the same.

Change takes time and a commitment. We cannot ignore the health of our kids and the 562,000 hungry children who live among us.

Please tell your school that you support nutritious meals for all of our students and an ongoing commitment to the standards of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.

And consider making a donation to one of our county’s summer child feeding programs, too.

No child should know hunger, ever.

Mike Brubaker is CEO of Blackford Ventures LLC, a private equity and real estate firm.  He served two terms in the Pennsylvania State Senate representing the 36th District, and served as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.