Let’s start with this premise: In 2019 America, there should be no children going hungry because their families can’t afford to feed them.
Now here’s the reality: Hunger is still a problem, even here in Southwest Virginia, despite how prosperous our society is, how low unemployment is and how abundant our food supply is.
It’s particularly a problem in our area — and just about everywhere else, for that matter — when kids are out of school for the summer.
That’s because free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs operate in our schools when they’re in session, helping keep hunger at bay for children and teens, who can get at least one or two nutritious meals on most school days. When school is out, those meals aren’t available.
Many children are fed breakfast and lunch throughout the school year, and when summer comes, they may not receive nutritious meals at all,” Valerie Cupp, director of child nutrition for Washington County Public Schools, said in a recent story by Carolyn R. Wilson in the Washington County News.
There were 3,217 Washington County students eligible for free meals, and 399 eligible for reduced-price meals, during April, she said, adding: “That’s 51% of the student population.”
To help prevent summer break from becoming a food gap in the lives of these kids, Cupp is overseeing a local Summer Food Service Program through the Washington County school system.
This program, which gets money from the U.S. Agriculture Department and is administered by the state of Virginia, provides payments to operators at the local level that serve healthy meals and snacks for free to children and teens at specific locations.
For this year, the program starts on Monday to provide free nutritious lunches — on-site only — that are prepared in local high school cafeterias. To ensure balanced nutrition to the participating kids, the meals include milk and foods with grains, vegetables, fruits and proteins, using federal school lunch program guidelines.
That lunch could “consist of a chicken sandwich, salad, apple and milk,” Cupp said.
For this program, there are no income guidelines or documentation required for children and teens 18 and younger to participate, but any adults who want to eat along with their children will be expected to pay $3 for their own meals.
“If we can reach children and provide them with meals when school is out, we are answering a desperate need in our community,” Cupp said.
There are some challenges to achieving that goal, including not only getting the word out that these free meals are available, but also finding transportation for kids who don’t have any way to get to the centers where the meals are being served. Unlike programs such as the senior citizens’ Meals on Wheels, operators of these summer children’s meal programs are not allowed to deliver the food to the kids.
Many, if not most, of the 230 kids who were served by the Washington County program last year were those who were already at the designated meal sites to participate in other activities, such as summer school and camps, rather than children just walking in off the street, Cupp said. This year she believes about 450 children might be served.
Each site’s operating days and times vary. Sites providing meals for this summer’s program, which ends Aug. 2, include Patrick Henry High School, 31437 Hillman Highway, Glade Spring, Virginia; Hayters Gap Library, 7720 Hayters Gap Road, Abingdon; John Battle High School, 21264 Battle Hill Drive, Bristol, Virginia; Living Faith Television, 14095 Lee Highway, Bristol, Virginia; and Emmanuel Baptist Church (includes breakfast and lunch), 19383 Lee Highway, Abingdon.
Similar programs operate in other areas, including Smyth County, Virginia, which has announced six participating sites already for its program. That program also begins Monday.
These are worthy programs that could use additional support, including help to spread the word and make sure children who need the meals are able to get to the sites and not have to go hungry.
Summer vacation should be a fun time for kids — not a time spent worrying about where their next meals might come from.
This summer, when it comes to nutrition, let’s help make sure no child is left behind.