More than 14% of children live in “food insecure” homes in the U.S., according to No Kid Hungry. To help combat this concern locally, Harrisonburg City Public Schools operate several nutritional programs that have led the division to earn the Dorothy S. McAuliffe School Nutrition Award for the second year in a row.
No Kid Hungry is a national campaign run by the nonprofit Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger organization. In 2017, No Kid Hungry Virginia began presenting the Dorothy S. McAuliffe award, which was named in recognition of the former First Lady of Virginia’s efforts to reduce childhood hunger. McAuliffe acts as the chairwoman of No Kid Hungry Virginia, and state director for the campaign Claire Mansfield said McAuliffe has been a “champion” for the organization. Fifteen Virginia school divisions received the award in November, including Staunton City Public Schools, according to a No Kid Hungry Virginia press release.
“What we know is that we have enough food in this country and in this Commonwealth, so there’s no reason that children shouldn’t be getting the nutrition that they need,” Mansfield said. “The award is important because we want to celebrate school divisions that have a top-notch commitment to meeting the needs to end hunger and increase nutrition among the children in this community.”
To qualify for the award, at least 70% of the students who are eligible in a school division for free or reduced-price meals and who eat school lunch must also eat school breakfast. Executive director of school nutrition for HCPS Andrea Early said 72-73% of HCPS students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, which means their families are working at or below 185% of the federal poverty level.
The division also must provide either dinners or snacks through the At-Risk Afterschool Child and Adult Care Food Program to be eligible for the award. This program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to serve snacks and meals to students in low-income areas. Lastly, the division must provide summer meals through the Summer Food Service Program or National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option. Early said the majority of funding for these programs comes from federal money, in addition to some state contributions.
Early oversees all of the nutrition programming within the city schools as well as menu planning, the hiring and training of staff, inventory recording, bill paying and free and reduced-price meal application processing. She said that although the programming is the right thing to do regardless of the award, she’s happy that the work of her team is appreciated.
“It’s nice to be recognized,” Early said. “I think it’s so great for my staff who just really work hard to get all this done, for them to be recognized for it.”
Early said about half of the division’s schools run Community Eligibility Provisions, which means that all students at those locations eat meals for free without needing to fill out free meal applications. Mansfield promotes federal nutrition programs — like those implemented by Early — in an effort to end child hunger in the state.
To encourage students to eat school breakfast, HCPS has an alternative breakfast model instead of the traditional cafeteria breakfast. In elementary schools, students are given breakfast in their classrooms rather than the cafeteria because more children eat breakfast that way, Early said. In middle and high schools, Early said breakfast is offered both as students arrive and later in the morning because they may not have the time to get it as they walk in, or they might not be hungry until later.
Director of Food Service for Rockingham County Public Schools Gerald Lehman said his division also has a variety of breakfast programs implemented in several of the schools. However, only 42% of students in RCPS qualify for free and reduced-price meals, which Lehman said means that they receive less federal funding to implement the programs that Early operates. He said nutrition is promoted primarily through exposure and presentation in the cafeterias.
“We certainly try to make our cafeteria areas a learning environment,” Lehman said. “We try to do this through how we decorate our cafeterias, how we present our food items and how we decorate bulletin boards.”
HCPS offers after-school snacks at any location that has after-school programming in addition to implementing the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program at some elementary schools. This program offers fresh fruit and vegetable snacks to students outside of meal times. Early said this helps introduce students to new foods and may impact what they choose in the lunchline.
Summer meals are provided at multiple HCPS locations, and three years ago, the division began running a “Mobile Café” that travels to eight neighborhoods in the summer over the course of eight weeks and a few days during other school breaks. Early said she plans to expand this program with a second smaller vehicle to add four or five stops to the usual route.
“We know that students do rely on school meals for a portion of their nutrition,” Early said. “That need doesn’t go away in the summer, so we try to bridge the nutritional gap a little bit with our summer meal program.”
Early also makes an effort to work with local farmers because she said students are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they’re fresh. She added that all of the beef that’s served is obtained locally from Seven Hills Food, a company based in Lynchburg, Virginia. Buying local food also adds to nutrition promotion in the schools, and Early said this helps educate students about the food they’re eating.
Harrisonburg High School hosts a dinner program for students who attend night school there. Once a month, the school hosts a “good food market” that acts as a food pantry in its parking lot.
Mansfield said one of every seven kids in Virginia is growing up in a family struggling with hunger. She said the community needs to “break down the barriers” that prevent children from receiving aid.
“A child can’t be hungry to learn if they’re just plain hungry,” Mansfield said. “Having full bellies is critical to ensure that children can enter the classroom and have full minds and learn.”
For the future, Early said she wants to advocate for universal no-cost meals in public schools. She said the money being spent to manage the free and reduced meals program may help offset some of the added costs of providing free meals to all students.
“I would love for us as a country to move toward a universal meals model where food is part of the school day just the same way we provide a warm building, transportation and books,” Early said. “I’m hoping that as a nation, we can figure out a way to do that sometime in the future.”
Contact Kamryn Koch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.