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Legislative Roundup: Casey, Fetterman introduce legislation to combat student hunger

Times Leader - 6/17/2024

Jun. 17--U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman introduced two bills that would expand access to free or reduced-price meals for millions of American children.

When children experience food insecurity, they face unique barriers that affect their ability to do well in school. The bills expand criteria for individual students to receive free or reduced-price school meals, lower the threshold required for districts to offer free school meals for all students, and increase reimbursements for schools to cover meal costs without compromising students' access to meals.

"Children should be able to focus on learning without worrying about where their next meal is going to come from," said Casey, D-Scranton. "Sen. Fetterman and I are introducing these bills to fight for the 13 million children in our Nation who lack consistent access to food. I will keep pushing to ensure that all children have enough to eat."

"Ensuring that our children have enough to eat is one of the most fundamental responsibilities we have," said Fetterman, D-Braddock. "It's simply unacceptable that children in our nation suffer from food insecurity because of excessive red tape and petty political games in Washington. We must do more to cut through bureaucratic hurdles and improve our nutrition programs. Both of these bills would go a long way to create a healthier, more equitable future for all of our children. I'm proud to partner with Sen. Casey on this critical issue."

--The School Hunger Elimination Act would expand student access to free or reduced-price school meals on both the individual and district levels. Direct certification -- a process used to identify and enroll students in free or reduced-price meal programs -- would expand so that a broader number of students could qualify.

The bill would also work on a district level by amending the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) -- a tool that allows schools in high-need communities to provide free school meals to all students. For a district to qualify for CEP, a certain percentage of the student population must be individually eligible for direct certification. The bill would also require that districts that adopt CEPs be reimbursed at a higher rate to help schools cover the costs of free meals.

--The Nutrition Red Tape Reduction Act would reduce the threshold for districts to qualify for CEP from 50% of student participation in the district to 25%. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ruled to expand the CEP to 25% in 2023. This bill would put the USDA's ruling into law and increase the number of schools who are eligible to provide free meals to all students.

Both bills work together to address the critical child hunger issue by expanding access to free or reduced-price meals while also providing districts with sufficient reimbursement to cover costs of providing more meals at a reduced rate.

Shapiro hosts ceremonial bill signing of Clean Slate Legislation

Gov. Josh Shapiro this week hosted a ceremonial bill signing with Lieutenant Governor Austin Davis, Majority Appropriations Chairman Jordan Harris, members of the General Assembly, and criminal justice reform advocates to celebrate the Clean Slate legislation that passed with bipartisan support and was signed by the Governor to make our Commonwealth more fair for all Pennsylvanians.

Last year, Gov. Shapiro signed criminal justice reform legislation into law as Act 36 of 2023. This legislation expands Pennsylvania's landmark Clean Slate initiative and establishes a process for the automatic expungement of criminal records for Pennsylvanians who receive an unconditional pardon.

This week, this updated law takes effect, ensuring more people can begin to get the second chances they deserve.

"A minor conviction from years ago shouldn't prevent someone from getting a job or renting an apartment -- especially if that person has received a pardon," Shapiro said. "And when someone gets a second chance, that should be a real opportunity to start over and succeed."

Shapiro said he believes Pennsylvania is a place for second chances -- and his Administration has invested in and advanced real criminal justice system reform.

"This is a cause that resonates beyond party lines, and that's why this Clean Slate legislation was co-sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans," Shapiro said. "This life changing bill includes a commonsense set of steps to remove unnecessary barriers for Pennsylvanians who want to rebuild their lives and meaningfully contribute to our communities."

Gov. Shapiro believes people who have paid their debt to society and are working to put their lives back together deserve to have a real path to opportunity and success -- and his Administration has taken commonsense steps to remove unnecessary barriers for Pennsylvanians who want to rebuild their lives and meaningfully contribute to our communities.

As a state representative, Lieutenant Governor Austin Davis sponsored a bill to provide automatic expungement for pardoned individuals, and he helped get this Clean Slate legislation over the finish line as Lieutenant Governor.

"The Governor and I believe Pennsylvania should be a place where people have second chances," Davis said. "Over the past year and a half, we have heard from many Pennsylvanians who have worked hard to turn their lives around and make amends."

As a state representative, Davis introduced legislation to address the injustices in our pardon process, and as Lieutenant Governor, he continued to champion this cause, working with Chairman Harris and Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, to incorporate automatic expungement language into the final version of this bill.

"This is a big win not just for the folks who earn a pardon, but also for their families and our communities -- and it's also a bipartisan win," Davis said.

"The Governor's proposed investments include:

--$5 million to ensure those facing eviction have access to legal counsel.

--$5 million for the Department of Corrections (DOC) to hire additional staff for to reduce the use of Extended Restrictive Housing, formerly solitary confinement, in correctional facilities.

A $4 million increase through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency (PCCD) to implement the changes made through recent probation reform and to provide additional resources to counties for adult probation services that reduce recidivism, increase the use of evidence-based practices, reduce caseload sizes, and improve the quality of services.

--A $2.5 million increase for indigent defense to be funded through PCCD and the Criminal Justice Advisory Committee. Previously, Pennsylvania was one of only two states in the country that did not allocate state funding for indigent defense -- but the 2023-24 budget funded statewide indigent defense for the first time in Pennsylvania history.

--An additional $239,000 to support staff well-being at DOC. Well-supported and resilient corrections staff are better equipped to handle the stressors of the job, which directly impact the safety and security of correctional facilities.

Keystone State ChalleNGe Academy graduates its first class of 2024

This week, 42 cadets from the Keystone State ChalleNGe Academy (KSCA) graduated from the 22-week residential phase of the program on their way to a brighter future.

The KSCA is designed to give at-risk teens a second chance at obtaining their basic education.

Additionally, this gives them the opportunity to learn leadership, self-discipline, and responsibility while working toward finishing their education and building a better life.

The cadets participated in numerous community service events, including volunteering at food banks, assisting with the annual March for the Fallen, and maintaining the national cemetery, park, and military ceremony grounds.

The cadets will now complete a minimum of a one-year mentorship phase of the program throughout various communities while they continue their education, join the workforce, or enter the military.

"This class has many accomplishments that we can all be proud of. Most notably is their willingness to take control of their lives, putting them on a path to a positive future," said Maj. Gen. Mark Schindler, Pennsylvania's Adjutant General and head of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA). "They have bright futures ahead of them and we look forward to their future accomplishments and contributions to our communities."

The opening of the academy at Fort Indiantown Gap (FTIG) in Lebanon County in July 2022 formally established the National Guard Bureau's Youth ChalleNGe Program in Pennsylvania.

The program is open to 16- to 18-year-old Pennsylvania residents who are failing to progress in high school or may not be on a clear path to graduating.

Applicants must be willing to be drug free, free of felony convictions, and voluntarily commit to the program. The program lasts for 17 1/2 months, with the first 22-weeks consisting of residential training at FTIG followed by a minimum of a one-year of mentorship back in their home communities.

The KSCA is now accepting applications for its next class, slated to begin in July.

Reach Bill O'Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.


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