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Free meals for kids: A look into Virginia’s summer feeding programs

Free meals for kids: A look into Virginia’s summer feeding programs

Photo by Obi - @pixel8propix on Unsplash

By Ava Edwards

June 18, 2024

No child should have to go without food during the summer, but many families struggle to fill their tables when school is out. Thanks to federal, state, and local programs, summer can remain a fun and carefree time for many Virginians. Here’s how the people behind summer feeding programs are bridging the childhood hunger gap.

This summer, Sheila Williams from Martinsville will serve area children up to 15,000 meals—and each nutritional opportunity will be completely free of charge. As the director of the Martinsville City Public Schools (MCPS) nutrition program, Williams and her team are dedicated to ensuring that no child goes hungry this season, thanks to the Summer Nutrition Programs for Kids.

Childhood hunger isn’t just an issue in Martinsville. Throughout the school year, many Virginia families rely on free school meals to feed their children during the week. Prior to the pandemic, more than 460,000 of Virginia’s 1.2 million students were eligible for free or reduced price school meals.

During the summer, however, kids have less access to school-provided meals—and many families experience difficulty stretching their incomes to feed their children three meals a day. It’s no wonder that No Kid Hungry, a national campaign run by nonprofit Share Our Strength, calls summer “the hungriest time of the year for kids.”

This is where summer feeding programs—and the passionate people ensuring their success on the ground level—come in to help bridge the gap. 

The need for summer feeding programs

At the state level, No Kid Hungry helps to fund local feeding programs throughout the summer.

“My corner of our work, in a nutshell, is making sure that Virginia kids have access to three meals a day, 365 days a year,” said Sarah Steely, director of No Kid Hungry Virginia.

However, with increased levels of poverty and the numerous financial struggles Virginia families face, this goal isn’t an easy target to hit.  

When discussing the traditional feeding programs, Steely noted that “those programs historically have only reached about one in seven kids who rely on the meals they get at school.”

She saw that as “an opportunity to get curious and understand what the opportunities are,” noting possibilities like “raising awareness and promoting these programs to families in different channels—or more directly.” 

How people impacted policy

In an effort to ensure that children had access to reliable food sources throughout the year, No Kid Hungry worked with lawmakers to fight against congregate food restrictions in certain settings. The constraints required kids to sit down and eat meals on-site at feeding programs—regardless of the challenges those in need faced. 

“Reasons of stigma, extreme weather, transportation distances, especially in our rural areas where the nearest town could be an hour away and over a mountain range” were some of the potential barriers to rural congregate meal settings that Steely mentioned. 

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 permanently authorized a non-congregate summer meals option for eligible rural areas. Steely gave insight into how policies sometimes affect practice, and how exceptions like the non-congregate option provide solutions. 

“Maybe it’s an issue of some sort of policy barrier. For example, the new congregate flexibility this summer—the traditional way of operating these programs, where kids are required to sit and eat their meals on-site, is prohibitive for a lot of reasons,” Steely said. 

By changing this law, families are also able to collect multiple meals at one time, which is essential for Virginians in particular. 

Steely noted that the change allowed many programs to “maximize the number of meal providers that are leveraging that flexibility and serving multiple days’ worth of meals to families at once.”

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat serving Virginia on a federal level, also weighed in on the issue.

“So many families, when the school year ends, their need to have a breakfast or a lunch doesn’t disappear—so these summer feeding programs are critically important,” Warner said. “I think they need to be expanded; it’s part of the solution.” 

Feeding a community

Local feeding programs throughout the commonwealth also share the same sense of dedication—even when times are tough all around. Williams recalled some of the various challenges that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she and her team rallied to find creative ways to ensure Martinsville children had access to nutritious meals.

“When COVID first happened, we delivered meals to homes using our buses and our bus routes,” Williams said. “And then later on, as we went on into the next school year’s meals, some of our schools were open and students came on-site and could consume meals—and we continued bus delivery as well until basically all of our schools reopened.”

Much like No Kid Hungry, the big goal at MCPS is to feed as many children as possible over the summer. According to Williams, all children 18 and under are welcome, whether they live within the city limits or not. The local director estimated that her program will provide between 12,000 and 15,000 meals to children over the coming weeks. 

“Our program this summer is called the Summer Nutrition Programs for Kids, and you’ll see the new logo sun around town,” Williams said, speaking of their participation in the USDA’s SUN program. “And that is an indicator that we do have free meals being offered to students throughout the summer.”

Finding free meals

Thanks to people like Steely and Williams, the fight against childhood hunger continues throughout the summer months. 

Steely said, “The bottom line is: All kids deserve a happy, hunger-free summer. Summer should be one of the best times of the year for children.”

For more information on summer feeding sites throughout Virginia, text 304304 to find a location near you. If you’re local to Martinsville, you can access that summer feeding schedule here.

  • Ava Edwards

    Ava is an up-and-coming journalist who recently graduated from William & Mary with a degree in English. She's written for news publications such as her school's newspaper, The Flat Hat, and Hampton Roads' WAVY-TV 10. As a lifelong Virginia resident, she looks forward to informing her community on the latest information and events.

CATEGORIES: FOOD and DRINK
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