Off the Menu
For some kids, summer break means going hungry – even in the suburbs.
By Donna Burch
Not every kid looks forward to the summer break.
During the school year, thousands of kids attending Chesterfield and Henrico public schools receive free or reduced-priced breakfast and lunch through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) school meal programming.
But when the school year ends, those meals disappear.
That leaves parents, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet with limited resources, trying to find a way to feed their hungry kids.
This isn’t just a problem in the inner city. It also happens in the suburban counties, like Chesterfield and Henrico. According to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, 11.8 percent of Chesterfield children and 13.7 percent of Henrico children are food-insecure, meaning these children have limited or unreliable access to safe, nutritious food. As both counties have seen a rise in poverty and unemployment – there are now more people living at or below the poverty line in Chesterfield and Henrico than in Richmond – the number of children with limited access to good food has also risen.
Fortunately, there are several programs and plenty of kindhearted people who are trying to fill the need for food over the summer months.
This year, FeedMore, Central Virginia’s largest hunger relief organization, will provide free meals to children at more than 50 summer feeding sites in their service area, including Chesterfield and Henrico counties.
“There’s a gap during the summer,” says Suzy Rohler, FeedMore’s director of marketing and communications. “For the students who rely on breakfast and lunch during the school year, all of sudden, those meals aren’t there for them. We try to fill that gap as best we can.”
FeedMore was still finalizing its list of summer feeding sites at press time, but locations are typically situated in low-income neighborhoods where there are children with the greatest need for food. Last year’s sites included schools, child care centers, churches and others. (See box to access a list of this year’s feeding sites.)
Anyone 18 and younger can walk into any of these sites and receive a free meal. No identification is required, and there is no income verification.
(Persons who are older than 18, disabled and attend Chesterfield or Henrico public schools can also visit the summer feeding sites.)
“All of our summer food sites are open [to anyone],” says Hope Kestle, FeedMore’s children’s programs manager. “There’s no eligibility, other than being a child, and you can go to any jurisdiction where we have a site.”
Last summer, FeedMore served up more than 134,000 meals to hungry kids and disabled young adults. The USDA reimburses FeedMore for each meal served.
Summer school servings
Having to attend summer school is probably a godsend for some kids. Chesterfield County Public Schools serves breakfast and lunch at every Title I school that holds summer classes, and Henrico County Public Schools offers breakfast and lunch through its Summer Academy.
In addition to Summer Academy sites, Henrico “is able to reach many … [food-insecure] students through programs, such as those administered by Henrico County Recreation and Parks and the Police Athletic League (PAL),” writes Andy Jenks, director of communications and public relations for Henrico Public Schools, in an email. “The key is that students must be enrolled in one of the programs. We serve around 80,000 meals each summer beginning the Monday after school is out and going up through August. Lunches are served, and in some instances breakfast too, and the kids are able to continue to receive the same nutritional meals as they do throughout the school year.”
Through Henrico PAL’s eight-week summer camp program, more than 300 kids get to go on field trips, take swimming lessons and play sports.
But more importantly for some, they also get to eat. The camp includes breakfast and lunch for all participants.
“Most of the kids meet the criteria for free or reduced lunch [at school],” says Kenny Ragland, Henrico PAL’s executive director. “I know that a lot of them depend on the meal. Very rarely do we have them turn the meal away.”
Hungry in the ’burbs
But obviously, not every child attends a summer camp, goes to summer school or lives in a community with a FeedMore summer feeding site.
Local churches and nonprofits are trying to fill that gap as best they can.
St. Matthias’ Episcopal Church in Midlothian provides meals to about 15 families in need, including several with children in Providence Middle School, each week through its food pantry. Families are referred to the pantry through social workers, FeedMore and other nonprofits.
“It’s just amazing the stories we hear … the things that happen [to these families], and you just think, there but for the grace of God go I,” says Linda Hudgens, a food pantry volunteer.
St. Matthias operates the only food pantry in the affluent Midlothian 23113 ZIP code. It’s not a neighborhood that someone would ordinarily associate with food-insecure children, but the growing demand for the food pantry’s inventory is proof that hard times can hit anyone – even those who live in McMansions in the suburbs.
“We’ve had a number of people who have had job losses … and that put them in a really difficult situation,” Hudgens says. “We may see them for two or three or four months, and then we don’t see them anymore. Then we see people who have had health problems, where they are not able to work.
“When you’re at a low point like that in your life, and people reach out and help you, you don’t forget that,” Hudgens adds. “I think that’s what keeps us doing what we’re doing.”
On the other side of the county, hundreds of people show up at the Chesterfield Food Bank’s food distributions at Hopkins, Ettrick and Providence elementary schools and at its headquarters on U.S. Route 10 in Chester every single week.
Families qualify for distributions based on their income. Those who meet federal poverty guidelines are referred to social services, where they are encouraged to apply for government benefits.
But there are many local families who make too much money to qualify for SNAP (formerly known as the food stamp program), but their budgets are stretched too tight to afford enough food for the household. Those are the families that benefit most from the Chesterfield Food Bank.
“Our targeted group is the working-class poor – those in-betweeners who don’t qualify for government assistance but don’t make enough to pay their bills,” explains Kim Piper Hill, the food bank’s executive director.
A small army of volunteers distributes more than 6,000 meals every week to Chesterfield families and seniors who fall into this category.
The food bank is piloting a new program this summer, partnering with several churches and organizations to add additional food distribution sites at Enon, Marguerite Christian and Elizabeth Scott elementary schools. (Wells and Curtis elementary schools may also be added to the list.)
These new sites are intended to reach food-insecure children.
“We try everything we can to help these people over the hump in their life,” Hill says. “Our motto is a hand up, not a handout. I tell everybody that 60 percent of our [nation’s] population is one or two paychecks away from needing help with food. It is nothing to be ashamed of. That is what we are here for.”
Help for the Hungry
Visit feedmore.com for a complete list of free summer feeding sites for children in the Richmond area, or text the word “food” to 877877.
If you are in need of food or would like to volunteer:
• FeedMore (for Chesterfield and Henrico residents), 521-2500, feedmore.org
• Chesterfield Food Bank (Chesterfield residents only), 414-8885, chesterfield foodbank.org