Hungry children the focus of Florida legislation (April 21, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Hungry children the focus of Florida legislation

April 21, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0061}

Bishop supports bill that would provide summer meals to more than one million needy children.

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND - Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker said local congregations should mobilize in support of Florida legislation that would provide a hot meal to more than one million needy children during the summer months.

Whitaker and Representative Ron Greenstein (D-Ft. Lauderdale), Senator Steve Wise (R-Jacksonville) and Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster of the Alabama-West Florida Conference held a joint news conference at the Florida Capitol March 29 to highlight the Children's Summer Nutrition bill, a program that could potentially bring millions of federal dollars to Florida and local economies to feed more than one million children in the summer months when school is out, according to a recent release from Florida Impact, a supporter of the bill.

Whitaker and Goodpaster attended the press conference and met with Greenstein and Wise as representatives of the United Methodist Council of Bishops' Initiative on Children and Poverty (BICAP) and concerned leaders of the state both bishops serve. The Alabama-West Florida Conference includes the area of Florida west of the Apalachicola River.

According to the release, the bill requires that at least one summer food program be operating in each school district for at least 40 days during the summer months and located within five miles of an elementary school where 50 percent or more children are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals by the summer of 2005. School district superintendents are responsible for implementing the plan and collaborating with local county government and private, non-profit leaders. Though schools have proven to be the optimal sites for the summer food program, any non-profit organization can serve as a site and/or sponsor, according to the release.

An exemption within the bill enables school districts to be exempt from the requirement. To do so, however, the district's school board must include the issue on an agenda at a regular or special school board meeting publicly announced and provide people an opportunity to participate in discussion about the bill, then vote on whether to be exempt from this section of the law, according to the release. Each year the school board files for an exemption it must formally reconsider its decision and annually vote to continue the exemption and then notify the Florida Department of Education.

 Whitaker said informed United Methodist Christians should educate themselves about the issue. "Local congregations should mobilize to reach out to children in their neighborhoods," Whitaker said. "Churches should care about the making of public policy."

Whitaker said the bill has garnered bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans. "This is federal government money, and it's been available for decades," he said. "There are no matching funds required. It's about feeding children."

The program is not being implemented in some counties, and Whitaker encourages United Methodists to contact their superintendent of education to determine if their church could become a feeding site if a school or other organization is not willing to operate the feeding program. He said churches could partner with other religious organizations to provide the service.

While encouraging churches to enter the realm of public advocacy, Whitaker warned members to make sure they are doing everything in their power to ensure their churches are child-friendly and welcoming. He suggested using the "A Church for All God's Children" checklist as a guide, found at on the conference Web site

"Churches should start from the ground up," he said. "Sometimes public advocacy is the last thing they get to in their church. There is an evolution that takes place. There is a lot of learning that needs to take place before they reach out into the community. Churches should make sure they are doing what they need to be doing before they reach out into the community."

Organized supporters for the introduction and passage of the bill are Florida Impact, Florida Academy of Family Physicians, United Way of Florida, Florida Catholic Conference and the Florida Association of Jewish Federations.

The bill is currently stalled in the senate appropriations subcommittee on education, according to a recent Florida Impact alert.


This article relates to Outreach and the Council of Bishops' Initiative on Children and Poverty.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.

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