By Alex Perry, Suffolk News Herald
A campaign to fight childhood hunger across Virginia will join libraries, churches, government and numerous community organizations to feed more kids in Suffolk this year.
Healthy Suffolk, ForKids, Bethlehem Christian Church and more than a dozen other organizations and government departments were represented at a meeting held by No Kid Hungry Virginia on Tuesday at the Health Department office on Hall Avenue.
The successes and difficulties of 2017 were evaluated to feed more Suffolk children this summer.
“We are here to raise awareness about ending childhood hunger across the state by way of the federal feeding programs,” said Marissa Spady, regional program associate for No Kid Hungry Virginia.
The campaign began in 2011 through a partnership between then First Lady of Virginia Dorothy McAuliffe, the Virginia Department of Health, the Department of Education and several corporate partners.
They’re connecting children ages 18 and younger to the School Breakfast, Summer Meals, and At-Risk Afterschool programs. Hundreds of thousands of students relying on free or reduced-cost school lunches miss out on meals during the summer, according to Spady.
Many of these children suffer from the “summer slide.”
“If kids don’t have access to nutritious meals and the enrichment activities they go along with, there’s an opportunity for those children to regress a bit from the academic achievements that they made during the school year,” Spady said.
“When they get back to school, they’re behind, and the teachers have to spend more time in remediation to try to get them back to where they were before they left school.”
No Kid Hungry data showed that more than 7,000 Suffolk Public Schools students were eligible for free and reduced meals, representing nearly half of the students enrolled in the 2017 school year.
Suffolk Public Schools, Parks and Recreation, the Foodbank of Southeast Virginia and the Cover 3 Foundation combined to sponsor 21 summer sites in 2017.
“It may be the first and only meal that they get every day,” said Tamara Bullock, recreation supervisor for Suffolk Parks and Recreation. “We even have kids at sites where parents are working and they just don’t have time. It’s not a money issue for them, it’s just being bogged down with everything else. “
The challenges for each site range from costly installations of refrigerators to simply having enough staff and volunteers. Children are only allowed to eat meals onsite, but sometimes they try to take food home to their brothers and sisters.
It’s also difficult to figure out just how many children are going to show up on any given day.
“Sometimes we don’t order enough meals, and sometimes we order more than what we need, which can be very costly because the reimbursement don’t match up with what we’ve spent out,” Bullock said.
Children don’t often get up early in the summer time for morning meal distributions. Some are even told not to go by prideful adults.
“There’s a stigma that comes with ‘free,’” said LaMarr Coles III, director of the Boys & Girls Club Suffolk Unit. “A lot of people try to display this perception of themselves, but then they have their children going to a place to get free food. It’s like, ‘Oh, we don’t need free food, stay in the house. We got noodles and whatever here. Is there something wrong with the food we got here?’ A lot of times that’s what that is.”
One of the ways to address this is by incorporating activities that change the event from food distribution to an enriching activity with a complimentary meal.
“Sometimes changing just the wording — how it’s displayed and advertised — can really impact who’s coming,” Spady said.
The campaign’s goals for 2018 include spreading the word on summer meal sites, making access easier for those dealing with transportation or distance, getting more sponsors, working with churches and other faith-based groups to reach more residents and getting the attention of parents and their children.
“We need to get the parents aware that we’re there and keep it exciting for the kids to want to come back,” Spady said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers free summer meals to kids across Virginia similar to School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. Text FOOD to 877-877 or visit fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks for more information on meal sites.
Call 651-9145 for more information on becoming a sponsor or site.
See full coverage here.