By Jason Alley, Richmond Times Dispatch
Richmond is a great food town. That’s why I chose to open my restaurants here. As a chef, I spend countless hours considering how best to prepare and showcase ingredients that will give my guests a dining experience they’ll remember — delighting people with delicious meals is my pride and joy.
But I also know food is nourishment, plain and simple. With the recent commemoration of National School Breakfast Week in March, we are reminded how important it is for students to get a healthy meal at school each and every morning.
I love Southern comfort food — but for kids food isn’t just comfort, it’s fuel.
Expecting students to learn on an empty stomach is like serving soup without a spoon. A healthy school breakfast is as important to students as a textbook or pencil.
Yet according to the anti-hunger nonprofit Share Our Strength, three out of four public school teachers say students regularly come to school hungry.
When kids don’t get the consistent nutrition they need, it impacts their health and growth and hurts their ability to learn and engage at school.
Across Virginia, more than 1,000 schools have launched Alternative Breakfast models, including many in the Richmond region.
These programs help get breakfast out of the cafeteria and into classrooms, and most importantly, into the hands of more children.
The work is driven by a cadre of talented and innovative school staff and teachers. Last year, Principal Sharon Rucker of Providence Elementary in Chesterfield County championed the use of Grab N’ Go kiosks where students can easily pick up breakfast before heading into their first class.
Approximately 60 percent more students are eating breakfast since the kiosks appeared. The school also has found other ways to engage students about healthy eating, from installing an herb garden to a colorful and inviting cafeteria area.
Meanwhile in Hampton, Edwina Forrest, school nutrition director at Hampton City Public Schools, knows that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Alongside No Kid Hungry Virginia, Ms. Forrest has worked with school staff and leadership to take creative approaches to serve breakfast during the school day, ensuring more students get the healthy meal they need to start the day.
While change can be hard, Ms. Forrest has been willing to try new ideas and think outside the box. And she’s seen results — more of her kids are eating breakfast than ever before.
Some schools have started small and ended up with big results.
In the southwest corner of Virginia, Principal John Whitner of Ridgeview Middle School in Dickenson County championed an alternative breakfast model with just two 6th grade classes at first. Because of his commitment and the program’s overall success, Grab N’ Go breakfasts are now available to all students in the middle school.
Because of champions like these and partners throughout the commonwealth, Virginia public schools served about 10 million more breakfasts last school year compared with the same time four years ago. That’s significant, but we can still do more to expand programs.
Experiencing childhood hunger leaves a lasting impression. I know personally what it’s like to be a kid living with the stress of hunger.
Now that I have four kids of my own, it’s unthinkable to me that in this land of plenty, there are still kids going without.
That’s why I want to bring attention to the issue of childhood hunger and to champions like Ms. Rucker, Ms. Forrest, and Mr. Whitney, who are committed to making sure all our kids thrive.
My experience with food insecurity and hunger actually inspired a permanent shift in our business model at Comfort, my first restaurant. We will be donating all of our profits to fight hunger in the greater Richmond area.
We hope that our donations to Feedmore, our region’s core anti-hunger charity, will help to get more children the food they need, especially in the summer, when school is not in session, and our heroes in the school system aren’t able to feed their students.
Feeding children breakfast means giving them a chance at success. When kids in Virginia have consistent, reliable access to school breakfast, it helps them learn more, stay healthier, and grow up stronger.
That’s a recipe for a stronger, more prosperous Virginia. Join me in thanking the everyday breakfast heroes who make sure no kid goes hungry in America, starting with Virginia.
See full coverage here.