Dorothy McAuliffe column: Virginia puts end of childhood hunger in sight

By Dorothy McAuliffe, Richmond Times Dispatch

I was working really late in my office on a Thursday night, and we had been closed for four days for snow, when my phone rang and this little boy said, ‘Lady are you going to open school tomorrow?’ I said, ‘I really don’t know, honey, but I’m going to make the call and it will be on television.’ He replied, ‘Please open. I am SO hungry.’

It was life-changing for me.

— Dr. Rita Bishop, superintendent, Roanoke City Public Schools

Hunger in Virginia is a paradox. There’s no reason why a nation and a commonwealth as rich in resources as we are should have hungry families.

And yet, from Alexandria to Abingdon, there are Virginians who regularly worry about where their next meal will come from. In fact, according to Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” report, 268,670 Virginia kids live in a state of food insecurity.

From Day 1, this administration has been focused on ending childhood hunger. Children can’t be hungry to learn if they’re just plain hungry, and we won’t have the future workforce we need to compete with the rest of the world if our children aren’t learning.

Working in partnership with the No Kid Hungry Virginia campaign, state agencies, our local school divisions, and many other dedicated nonprofit partners over the past four years, we’ve been able to make tremendous progress in ending childhood hunger in Virginia. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • More than 1,000 Virginia schools now offer Breakfast After the Bell (an increase of more than 700 in three years), making breakfast part of the school day in order to reduce stigma, increase participation, and enhance instructional time.
  • State school breakfast funding was increased by $2.7 million in the governor’s budget to support expansion, resulting in an additional $22 million in federal funding coming back to our communities each year to nourish our children and support our schools.
  • 10 million more breakfasts were served last school year over 2014.
  • 2 million more after-school meals and snacks are served each year over 2014.
  • 37 more school divisions serve summer meals, an increase from 49 in 2014 to 86 in 2017.

By leveraging the federal child nutrition programs, which have been in place since military leaders went to Congress at the end of World War II to express concern about the threat of malnutrition to our national and economic security, we have put the commonwealth on a sustainable path to end childhood hunger once and for all. The resources and insights we need to achieve our goals are already available; we simply need to maximize them to their greatest potential.

Three years after Virginia’s partnership with No Kid Hungry began, school breakfast programs are reaching over 50,000 more students each school day. By starting their days together, with a meal like Second-Chance Breakfast, those students perform better in school, and are less likely to have discipline problems — because they are focused on their lessons instead of their empty stomachs. As a commonwealth, we need to sustain this funding, and expand our work to make sure that Virginia’s middle and high school students are receiving those same chances to succeed.

By strengthening networks across the state’s food community, the larger food system has been impacted as well. Through the work of the Commonwealth Council on Bridging the Nutritional Divide, leaders from diverse sectors came together to identify common challenges and opportunities, offer solutions, and implement sustainable change to address gaps in food access. In 2016, the council successfully advocated for the Food Crop Donation Tax Credit, making it easier for farmers to donate their excess crops to food banks and feed hungry Virginians with fresh, local food products. The council also launched the campaign for the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund, which is funded in the governor’s outgoing budget and promises to build brighter futures for rural and urban communities by encouraging grocery store development in neighborhoods designated as food deserts.

To create lasting change and further enhance collaborative efforts, the council established the Virginia Food Access Network ( last spring. Nonprofits, businesses, schools, and community groups working to fight hunger in their neighborhoods now have access to a dynamic online site with the resources and data they need to identify solutions, build partnerships, and share their results statewide.

It has been the honor of my life to serve as the first lady of Virginia and to have the opportunity to work in partnership with so many tremendous leaders across the commonwealth to advance our shared goals. Proper nutrition truly is the best medicine, and ending childhood hunger and expanding access to nutritious, locally grown agriculture will ensure a vibrant, healthy, and well-educated workforce in Virginia for decades to come.

Ending hunger in Virginia requires an “all of the above” set of solutions. Together, we have set the blueprint and proven the model. Now, we just need to follow through and stay the course so that all of the commonwealth’s children can enjoy a few snow days without the fear of going to bed hungry.

See full coverage here