School nutrition programs provide about 112,700 million lunches, 57 million breakfasts, and 1.4 million after school snacks to Virginia students during the school year. Summer feeding programs, like those in Virginia, help close the gap of students facing food insecurity when school isn’t in session.
For students who rely on school meals to be fed, summertime raises the question of where they will find their next meal.
School nutrition programs provide about 112,700 million lunches, 57 million breakfasts, and 1.4 million after school snacks to Virginia students during the school year. For many students, the need for food sourced from outside of the home doesn’t come to an end when schools close for the summer.
“It should be a time of sunshine and playtime with friends. For our kids who depend on the lifeline of school meals during the school year, it can also be a time of really intense anxiety for their households,” said Sarah Steely, director of No Kid Hungry Virginia. “Budgets don’t automatically get bigger when that last bell rings.”
No Kid Hungry Virginia is part of a national campaign run by Share Our Strength, a nonprofit addressing problems of hunger and poverty around the country. No Kid Hungry Virginia supports school feeding programs, advocates for ending child hunger, and collaborates with community-based organizations to ensure children have access to federal nutrition programs, according to its website.
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Summer feeding programs throughout the commonwealth are paramount in addressing the needs of the one in 11 Virginia children who face hunger. The meal programs, operated by school nutrition departments and other community centers, make a big difference for Virginia families facing income insecurity when school lunches aren’t an option.
Legislation helps, too. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 made a number of strides No Kid Hungry, Share Our Strength, and other organizations had been advocating for, including the opportunity for feeding programs in rural localities to serve meals off-site.
Previously, children (18 and under) would have to go to a location and eat meals on-site, which proved a challenge in accessibility. The new non-congregate flexibilities help with roadblocks like gas money, severe weather, working parents, and stigma by giving students multiple days’ worth of meals to take home, according to Steely.
“We know that regulation has been prohibitive for a long time.” Steely said. “It’s affected the number of kids that participated in the summer meals program.”
Making a Local Impact
Marci Lexa, director of school nutrition for Henry County Public Schools, said the impact of the Consolidated Appropriations Act was “huge.”
Henry County has open sites for children to come in, sit down, and eat, but that doesn’t happen often, according to Lexa.
“There is a need for [home delivery],” Lexa said. “I’ve done several of the routes last week, and I did not realize that people live like some of the people live here in my county. It’s heartbreaking, and there’s children living in those households.”
Share Our Strength played a significant part in the volume of meals Henry County is able to deliver, Lexa said, providing Henry County with large cooler trucks and vans to aid with delivery.
The non-congregate provisions outlined in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 are currently limited to rural localities, a definition drawn by the United States Department of Agriculture, according to Steely.
“It’s certainly something that we’d love to look to expand in the future,” Steely said.
The Importance of Summer Feeding Programs
The lack of proper access to nutrition severely impacts both short- and long-term physical health. That might look like more trips to the doctor’s office or a higher risk of chronic diet-related diseases like heart disease or diabetes, Steely said.
The impact is not limited to physical health—disrupted access to food, especially in the summer month, plays a significant role in development and mental well-being, Steely said. Students who are already missing out on summer learning opportunities like camps and enrichment programs are already a step back from high-income peers.
“When you pair that with a lack of … nutrition, their cognitive development is being impacted as well,” Steely said.
To locate a summer feeding site near you, visit the interactive map on No King Hungry Virginia’s website. You can find that right here.
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