The USDA defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.
Virginia’s rate of child food insecurity is actually the fifth lowest rate in the nation, at 13.2%, but children in certain regions of the state, such as Richmond and southwest Virginia, experience hunger at a much higher rate.
Over 20% of children in Richmond experience food insecurity, while Buchanan County has the highest child insecurity rate at 25.2%, or 1,020 children. Bristol also has a high rate of 21.4%, or 750 children.
While these rates are alarmingly high, rural areas like Buchanan County and Bristol also have low populations, which can skew the rates, according to the Bristol Herald Courier. For example, there are over 8,000 food insecure children in Richmond, while Buchanan county and Bristol have less than 2,000 total.
Contributing factors to food insecurity include unemployment, low wages, medical conditions, drug abuse, and lack of transportation and affordable child care options. The issue is particularly common in rural areas, which have a dearth of grocery stores and food banks.
Lack of access to food becomes an even more serious issue during the summer months, when children aren’t enrolled in school.
But in recent years, school districts and organizations have stepped up to more seriously address the issue.
The USDA has multiple summer programs to help fill the “critical nutrition gap” for children, and among the efforts to tackle the issue is a partnership between the Cumberland Plateau Regional Housing Authority and Feeding America Southwest Virginia.
The groups work together through the USDA’s summer program and provide lunch and an afternoon snack Monday through Friday.
Russell County and Washington County also have similar summer programs through the USDA.
According to the Bristol Herald Courier, the surge in summer programs is frequently attributed to former First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, who worked steadfastly to implement the Virginia 365 Project to End Childhood Hunger.
The Virginia 365 Project came to fruition after the USDA provided Virginia with $8.8 million in funding to test the impact of providing three meals a day to all children in select schools during the school year, while also giving them food for weekends and school breaks and providing low-income households with resources to purchase food during the summer.
Richmond, Bristol, and Tazewell and Buchanan counties were among the first localities chosen for the project and while there was some success according to the Bristol Herald Courier, there are still some children who don’t get enough to eat during the summer.
Other groups, such as the Southwest Virginia Coalition to Address Hunger Free Children, which is comprised of nonprofits and several school systems, are also begin to address the issue as they know that funding for the Virginia 365 project will eventually run out and leave a void.
Feeding America Southwest Virginia CEO Pamela Irvine told the Herald Courier that the coalition is in the process of “determining what response is realistic to fill that need because it’s going to leave a great gap for those children and a lot of those [rural] areas don’t have the resources to be able to provide a lot.”
Feeding America Southwest Virginia has partnered with 11 sites to offer summer food programs this year and they plan to add 10 more sites next summer.
While these groups continue to make some progress, the issue also requires more substantive action.
Including children, there are a total of 863,390 Virginians experiencing food insecurity and the Map the Meal Gap report estimates that it would cost $446.7 million to meet the food needs of those people.
Some lawmakers are trying to do their part. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va) introduced a bill in March to eliminate food deserts, though it’s unclear if it will gain traction in the Republican-controlled Senate.
On the state level, Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) introduced HB 1858, and state Sen. Rosalyn Dance (D-Petersburg) and state Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin) sponsored SB 999, which would have created the Virginia Grocery Investment Program and Fund to provide funding for the construction, rehabilitation, or expansion of grocery stores in underserved communities throughout Virginia.
Despite the severity of the issue, a Republican-led committee defeated both bills.