NY Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wants to require that school cafeterias...

NY Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wants to require that school cafeterias serve healthier food. Credit: Photos.com

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is proposing to increase funding for free and reduced school meals, to raise income eligibility levels so more kids qualify and to require cafeterias to serve healthier fare, as Congress takes up debate over reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act.

In a conference call Tuesday, Gillibrand said she aims to boost the federal reimbursement districts receive to serve free and reduced lunches by 70 cents.

The reimbursement would rise from $2.57 to $3.27 per meal to help schools afford healthier food. In New York, the state adds 6 cents.

Calling the program a "lifeline for families across New York," she said she hopes the proposals are in place by next school year.

"Too many children who should be receiving free, healthy meals are not enrolled in programs available to them, and they're paying the price in their grades, health and future," said Gillibrand, a member of the Agriculture Committee.

William Kidd, assistant business administrator for the Middle Country school district, said an increase could help offset costs in the "more expensive process of preparing healthier foods, including increased labor from 'scratch' cooking, and costs for equipment that can effectively cook and produce healthier options."

A recent national survey found the average cost to prepare and serve a school lunch that meets federal nutritional standards is $2.92.

Gillibrand said she plans to streamline the enrollment process for families, promote school breakfast services, and eliminate junk food and trans fats from schools.

Nearly 3 million children across New York are enrolled in the National School Lunch program, with nearly 450,000 on Long Island.

An analysis of 29 school districts responding to a Newsday survey found nearly 16 percent more children are in such programs this year than four years ago. The trend has been most pronounced in middle- and upper-middle-class districts over the past two years.

Gillibrand is proposing targeted assistance for residents in high-cost-of-living areas. Currently, children at schools across the nation must meet the same eligibility standard - those living at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line, or $28,665 for a family of four.

For high-cost areas, including Nassau and Suffolk counties, the legislation would expand free meals to all children living under 185 percent of the federal poverty line, or $40,792 for a family of four.

"There are a lot more families out there who could use the assistance than we have on our roster," said Anne Marie Caliendo, assistant superintendent for business in the William Floyd district, where nearly 4,000 students are enrolled in free and reduced programs.

Gillibrand said she supports legislation to make it easier to enroll children in the program.

Suffolk's Department of Social Services launched a program recently with local school districts to increase participation in free and reduced meal programs. County Executive Steve Levy said 672 additional students in 19 districts have been enrolled.

"A hungry child is an unproductive child," Levy said.

Gillibrand also supports new legislation that would set nutrition standards for all food served on school grounds.

She already has introduced legislation to ban trans fats in public schools that receive federal reimbursements and plans to attach that proposal to the Child Nutrition Act.

NewsdayTV's Elisa DiStefano and Newsday food writer Marie Elena Martinez take a look at the hottest places to dine on Long Island this summer.  Credit: Randee Daddona; Newsday / A.J. Singh

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NewsdayTV's Elisa DiStefano and Newsday food writer Marie Elena Martinez take a look at the hottest places to dine on Long Island this summer.  Credit: Randee Daddona; Newsday / A.J. Singh

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