Documentary plans to highlight impact of pilot program aimed to combat hunger in schools

By David McGee, Bristol Herald Courier

Two women carrying large video cameras moved deftly among parents, grandparents and students at Highland View Elementary School’s graduation ceremony.

Few of the more than 200 people seemed to pay much attention to their presence, even when they moved in close to capture a particular emotion or facial expression. That’s because Rebekah Purcell and Hannah Jayanti became part of the Highland View family during the past year — immersing themselves into the routines of school and families — all in an effort to show the impact of a pilot program that feeds impoverished children three meals daily.

They followed two families with children enrolled at Highland View for more than a year. Once finished, their work will be edited into a documentary film.

Purcell is a manager and producer of multimedia content for the No Kid Hungry campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy effort promoting nutrition through public schools. The campaign is run by a nonprofit organization called Share Our Strength.

Former First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, the Virginia health and education departments and corporate partners launched the No Kid Hungry Virginia program. They combined to launch Project 365, which was designed to end childhood hunger in the state.

Jayanti is a freelance filmmaker and editor from New York, who was hired to capture compelling images. Neither was authorized to speak with the newspaper about this project.

Highland View, where 99 percent of the school’s families live at or below the federal poverty level, first welcomed the visitors last year, Principal Pamela Davis said Friday.

“They have been so positive. This is going to be a very positive documentary based on the things we do to meet the basic needs of our children, to get the academic part of our day rolling,” Davis said. “These ladies have been with us; we feel like they’re family. We even order them staff shirts.”

The documentary is expected to be completed later this year.

Nationally, one is six children faces hunger and 13 million children live in “food insecure” homes, meaning they frequently don’t have enough to eat, according to No Kid Hungry.

Davis has been an advocate for school nutrition on the state level and she hopes sharing a slice of the Highland View story will help prompt other states and communities to recognize the problem and respond.

“There is another Highland View in the next community. There’s another Highland View across Virginia and across the nation. The focus is ending childhood hunger everywhere, not just here. It’s about what food service does, how it impacts our families. It’s about doing what’s right for kids,” Davis said.

As part of their work, they filmed Davis’ attendance at the City Council’s public hearing on the budget, which included reducing funds to the school division. They also attended and filmed much of the debate over school funding and a proposed new elementary school — which, if approved, would close Highland View — during last week’s council meeting.

The school provides breakfast, lunch and a hot afternoon meal for its students, plus a backpack filled with food and snacks for weekends.

“Food is the great equalizer. Before we started our breakfast-on-the-go model, we had a lot of early morning discipline issues,” Davis said. “Throughout the day, they have fresh fruits and vegetables so the children can stay focused on their learning. … We try to make sure they have something in their bellies all day long so they can stay focused to do all the math, the reading, the writing; all the things we need to do.”

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