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According to Feeding America, an average of about 10% of Virginia residents in the WMRA region are “food insecure,” meaning they are without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. And that percentage climbs in our cities, with an average of about 15% of urban residents food insecure. Overall, more than 1 in 10 people in the WMRA area don’t know where their next meal is coming from.But who are these people? And who is trying to help them? This series explores the experiences of Virginians struggling with food insecurity, from children to the elderly, from the able-bodied poor to those who are disabled and/or homebound, and the people and organizations trying to help – and the challenges those organizations face in raising community support for their efforts.

Children and Hunger: Food Insecurity, Part 3

One of the most hidden faces of food insecurity is that of the hungry child. In the third part of our series on Food Insecurity, WMRA’s Jordy Yager looks at how Charlottesville City schools and several groups are attempting to help kids eat better, more regular meals, and to learn good eating habits.

[Sound of an elementary school cafeteria filled with children eating lunch. ]

Such a familiar noise. For many of us, it’s probably far removed, but that’s the sound of about one-hundred 3rd and 5th graders eating lunch at school.

In Albemarle County last year, about 20 of those voices belonged to kids from homes that didn’t have adequate access to food. If you lived in Charlottesville, nearly 55 of those 100 children were considered food insecure.

And that’s just locally. A recent study by Feeding America, a nationwide non-profit network of food banks, looked at Central and Western Virginia. They found that in 2013, more than 53,000 kids under the age of 18 weren’t sure where they’d get their next meal. That number had grown by more than 1,300 kids since the previous year. Nationally, the group found that nearly one-third of the 49 million people who go hungry in the U.S. every month are children.

MICHAEL MCKEE:  Children who are food insecure arrive at school far less prepared to learn.

Michael McKee, the chief executive officer of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, explains the effects food insecurity has on children.

MCKEE: They have a much harder time attending to teachers. They might have a harder time staying awake. They’re lower energy. They’re more easily distracted. They’re given to more frequent behavioral challenges. And they’re likely to fall behind if not provided with sufficient food. And we know that kids who fall behind by third grade fall further behind and are at higher risk of dropping out of school.

To try and make sure that kids have enough to eat in these formative years, the federal government funds free and reduced lunch programs in schools throughout the country. In order to qualify for free meals, a family of four has to make less than $31,000.

Last year, more than half of the 4,000 children enrolled in Charlottesville city schools received free or reduced lunch. That proportion has held steady since 2007, the year before the recession. Of course, some elementary schools in the system have higher rates — well over 80 percent most years — while others hover in the 30 to 40 percent range.  In total last year, Charlottesville City Schools provided roughly 375,000 lunches, 200,000 breakfasts, and 60,000 snacks to kids.

But it’s not just the quantity of meals that a child receives; it’s also the quality. So, within the shear volume of food, Christina Connell tries to make sure that food insecure kids eat more healthfully. That means providing students with more fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods. That means preparing more foods in the school kitchen, and ordering fewer frozen foods from a manufacturer. That means getting students to try new things like kale chips or hummus or parfaits. That means the fry-o-lators of my childhood have been replaced with salad bars. It hasn’t been easy, says Connell, a coordinator of school nutrition for Charlottesville City Schools.

CHRISTINA CONNELL: At least we’re providing these meals that are nutritious, low in sodium, high in whole grains — at least a couple of times a day — to people that ordinarily wouldn’t have that opportunity. And maybe, in some way, that’ll make a difference.

Another way the schools are trying make a difference is with vegetable gardens, like the one I visit at Clark Elementary, which has the highest free and reduced lunch rate in Charlottesville. 

[Sound of a child digging for sweet potatoes at Clark Elementary.]

As the kids try new foods, like kale chips or asparagus, they also learn where it comes from and what it takes to grow it. The non-profit group City Schoolyard Garden was started five years ago and now boasts educational gardens in seven out of the nine Charlottesville city schools. While nearly every student has the chance to get his or her hands dirty, the group is particularly focused on reaching kids from low-income and food insecure households. About 2,500 kids participate in the gardens each year. But the program goes beyond teaching kids how to grow kale, asparagus, and dozens of other vegetables. Executive director Jeanette Abi-Nader explains.

JEANETTE ABI-NADER: Our vision is that children who are engaged in nature have enhanced academic performance. They learn – they cultivate healthy living skills. They learn about community teamwork. So we’re using the garden as a lab.

The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank is trying to stem the tide of child hunger with its own program. It’s called the BackPack Program and it spans schools over six counties, especially those in rural areas. Eligible students get a backpack full of food every Friday during the school year.  But McKee says, we can’t backpack our way out of child hunger, it’s just not a cost-effective model, which leaves him wondering, what more can be done?

MCKEE: We’ve got to do more. We’ve got to figure out how to get to the kids who need us most. How do we get to the kids who have even fewer options?

Jordy Yager was a freelance reporter for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.