New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson wants to expand the city’s summer meals program to include the parents and guardians of eligible children. He is also proposing, among other initiatives to combat hunger, increased public outreach efforts so fewer federally funded summer meals go unclaimed.

He outlined his recommendations in a new report, which showed that food insecurity affects nearly 1 million New Yorkers.

Among those experiencing hunger are some 348,500 New York City children, according to nonprofit organization Feeding America.

“Adequate access to nutritious food is a human right,” Johnson said, speaking Aug. 1 at Cypress Hills Community School at P.S. 89, an elementary and middle school in Brooklyn where meals are prepared using fresh produce from the school’s greenhouse. “This principle isn’t just for developing countries. It’s something we must follow right here in New York City, one of the richest cities in the world.”

On weekdays while school is out of session, the city provides provides free breakfast and lunch to anyone under the age 18 at selected schools, parks, pools, libraries, and food trucks across the five boroughs. Often, the children coming to some 1,500 meal sites are accompanied by adults who are also hungry. 

The summer meals program, which runs June 27 to August 30, served approximately 7.3 million meals in 2018, according to the city’s education department. In its first week this year, it served 100,000 more meals than it had during the same period the previous summer.

Still many meal sites have food going unclaimed. That means many students who eat free lunches during the school year are not receiving meals during the summer. Researchers at New York University are studying the gap in summer nutrition program participation, and a 2017 Hunger Solutions New York report found the city’s summer meals program reached just 36 percent of students who eat school lunch during the academic year. 

Several parents told Chalkbeat that they’d gotten limited information from the education department about the availability and location of meals. Johnson is proposing legislation that would require the city to require education department to send targeted information to families with the locations of their closest summer meal sites. The bill would build on a local law that requires the education department to distribute information about summer meals each year by June 1.

“Awareness is really key to these programs and we’d like to see those efforts extended even into August, especially since families may not even realize which sites are open to them as the summer goes on,” said Krista Hesdorfer, a child nutrition programs specialist with Hunger Solutions. 

Because the summer meals program is funded through federal reimbursements, which require meals be served only to people under 18, their parents and guardians may continue to go without adequate nutrition. As a result, the city will launch a pilot program at some meal sites to offer adult companion meals. The pilot will be city-funded, according to a representative from the speaker’s office. 

Johnson’s proposal came on the first day of August, a month when the number of available meal sites declines. Statewide, meal sites that operate in August often end their service within the first couple weeks of the month. In New York City last year, only about half of the sites were serving meals by the last week of August, according to Hunger Solutions. Some such sites have already closed for the summer, and more are slated to shut down by the end of the week. 

Johnson’s initiative is designed to expand on programs like deli-style cafeterias, which began at six schools in the Bronx in 2017, and led to increased lunch participation and increases in fruit and vegetable consumption, according to the city. The redesigned cafeterias offer serve-yourself options and “student-friendly” seating. 

The speaker also called on the city to study and create a plan to serve more cooked-from-scratch meals. Many schools don’t currently have the kitchen or tools necessary to prepare food in-house, so Johnson is asking that the city fund cafeteria upgrades in schools, and increase the SchoolFood budget to purchase fresh ingredients. 

“I love the idea of kids eating fresh-cooked meals in school but unfortunately that’s not the norm for public school students and I think it should be,” Johnson said. 

The city has already included $250,000 in the fiscal year 2020 budget to fund FoodEd Resource Hub, which will advocate for nutrition education, coordinate with stakeholders citywide, and evaluate nutrition programs that are already operating in city schools. Johnson also wants the city to hire food education coordinators in the Office of School Wellness. 

Johnson was joined at the announcement by Rafael Espinal, a council member for District 37, who praised the speaker’s commitment to advocating for youth nutrition services. 

“I grew up learning about soil, harvesting and maintaining produce, eating healthy food, and how to become a healthy adult,” Espinal said. “The majority of kids across New York do not have the same opportunity, and to this day most communities are deprived of this kind of experience.”

To that end, the council plans to partner the Department of Youth and Community Development to provide students opportunities to work in community gardens during the summer. 

According to Johnson, the council will consider a number of other proposals to combat food insecurity, including possible changes to the Office of Food Policy, increased funding for Health Bucks, which allow low-income New Yorkers to buy fresh food at city farmers markets, and an expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for seniors, among other initiatives. 

“Everyone deserves equitable access to healthy food that is reflective of their community’s many cultures,” Johnson said. “Food is power and we want that power in the hands of our communities.”