The number of children in need of food during the summer is WAY too high. Here’s how you can help.
“One out of every seven children in Central Virginia1 don’t know where their next meal is going to come from,” said Hope Kestle, Children’s Program Manager at FeedMore, the region’s leading organization for hunger relief. “That’s just unacceptable. Our own children in our neighborhoods shouldn’t be going hungry.”
Most “food-insecure” children get some food security while in school. According to Virginia Department of Education data, over 17,000 students in Richmond Public Schools qualified for free and subsidized lunches (PDF) in October 2013.
But those school meals vanish when that last bell rings for summer vacation. “And with schools out for the summer, that leaves a big gap for children to have a nutritious meal,” Kestle said.
In 1975, the federal government created the Summer Food Service Program, which granted states money to provide needed meals for students during the summer. Now overseen by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the program feeds money to the Virginia Department of Health, which oversees the “sponsors” that distribute the summer food.
“When FeedMore submits an application to the Department of Health, it’s not just an application for FeedMore to be a sponsor, but also all the sites that we plan on serving have to be approved as well,” Kestle said. FeedMore operates 48 summer food service sites throughout the region, most of which run from June 23rd until August 29th.
Each day, FeedMore provides each site breakfasts and lunches that meet USDA “meal pattern” requirements. “For breakfast, there has to be a grain, a fruit, and a milk,” Kestle said. “And for lunch there has to be a protein, a grain, a vegetable, a fruit, and a milk.”
Providing children fruits and vegetables is already a FeedMore priority. “Children that are food insecure live in food deserts, and so their access to food might be the corner 7-11, and they don’t stock fresh fruit and fresh vegetables,” she said. “So most children have only had canned foods. They don’t know what a fresh apple might taste like, or a fresh plum. So we really try to focus on healthy foods, healthy nutrition, and expose children to that.”
There’s no enrollment process to participate in the summer food service program. “The only eligibility requirements are that you’re 18 or younger, or you’re an adult with disabilities,” Kestle said. People may eat at any site throughout the region, as they’re not limited to their nearest location.2
Last year, FeedMore served roughly 152,000 meals over the summer. This year, the organization anticipates it will serve approximately 2,200 breakfasts and 2,400 lunches each day.
In addition to FeedMore’s efforts, the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation oversees over 140 additional sites (PDF) throughout the region.3 Last year, the City served 265,000 meals. Combined, the City and FeedMore4 served roughly 417,000 summer meals in 2013.
“We have a capacity of 3,200 meals out of our kitchen, and the need is far greater than that,” Kestle said. “So the City schools serve a whole lot more children because they can prep the food in their cafeterias and serve it in the cafeterias, and students can walk over.”
But Kestle said FeedMore and the City aren’t competitors. “There’s no competition in feeding children,” she said. If anything, FeedMore’s adversary is unpredictability.
FeedMore only receives subsidies for every meal it serves. “If a site puts in an order for 50 meals every day, and 20 kids show up, we’re only being reimbursed for 20 meals. So the other 30 meals are considered a meal lost,” Kestle said.
The USDA gives $2.00 for each breakfast and $3.54 for each lunch served, which may or may not match the actual cost of the meals. “So if it costs $6 for lunch, we still only get $3.54,” Kestle said.
But even partial compensation goes to waste if prepared meals go unserved. “We definitely don’t want [sites] running out of food, but we definitely don’t want them putting a lot of food in the trash either, because it can’t be saved for another day — it has to be disposed of,” Kestle said. “So there’s always that gap there.”
That’s why monetary donations to FeedMore go the furthest in the summer. For every $10 donated to FeedMore, the organization can provide 50 meals. “We have procurement relationships with some of the largest national manufacturers,”5 Kestle said. “And it’s not only our relationships, but it’s the relationships” forged by Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks of which FeedMore is a member. “That’s how we can take $10 and turn it into 50 meals.”
But those meals go to waste if families don’t know about the summer program. “Unfortunately, a lot of the families that need assistance don’t necessarily have the technology to learn about the assistance,” Kestle said. “A lot of the publicity is through the media. And if you don’t have a TV or you don’t have the internet, then how are you going to know about it?” That’s why FeedMore’s efforts in distributing flyers to students in the weeks before summer vacation, and simple word-of-mouth, are vital to spreading the word.
“I hope more families can find out about it and can take their children to eat,” Kestle said. “That’s the most critical piece of it.”
photo by DC Central Kitchen
- Encompassing 31 counties and five cities. ↩
- People aren’t limited to the site closest to their school or home. So if, for example, a child who lives in Southside gets dropped off at their grandmother’s for the day in Chesterfield, he or she may eat in Chesterfield (or anywhere else, for that matter). ↩
- Like FeedMore’s sites, City sites run from June 23rd to August 29th. ↩
- Other local counties also offer their own sites. ↩
- She said one of which is with a local Purdue plant, which provides FeedMore with surplus poultry at discounted prices. ↩