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Summer food program for local kids is praised
Patricia Dombroski (left), administrator of the Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service Mid-Atlantic Regional Office, and Dr. Michael Welch, director of the Division of Community Nutrition at the Virginia Department of Health, speak Thursday at the Bassett Library. They praised the library’s part in a program designed to feed children during the summer months.
Three public libraries tried to keep Henry County and Martinsville children from being hungry this summer by giving them free meals and snacks.
That has been an important service, West Piedmont Health District Director Dr. Jody Hershey said, because statistics indicate most local children are victims of economic circumstances that could limit their access to food.
The Bassett library on Wednesdays and Thursdays provided simple, healthy meals to anyone age 18 and younger who asked for one — no questions asked, according to Blue Ridge Regional Library system officials.
Meals included a hot entree, such as the pizza served Thursday when the pilot program ended for the summer, plus a fruit, vegetable and milk.
Karen Barley, the library’s manager, said an average of 50 meals per week were served. A figure for the number of children who received lunches was not available, but she said new faces took part each time meals were served — it was not the same children over and over again.
Some of the kids participated in the library’s children’s programs, and others walked in off the street, Barley said.
Snacks such as crackers, cookies, milk and juice were served at the Martinsville and Collinsville libraries.
Library system officials chose the Bassett branch to provide the meals because a large number of Bassett-area families have suffered economic problems in recent years, Barley said.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds covered the cost of the food. The Henry County Schools prepared the food. All the libraries had to do was serve it, said Rick Ward, director of the library system.
Upon hearing about the feeding program, other entities pitched in to help, Barley said. For example, she said, EMI, Collins McKee-Stone Funeral Service and Bassett Funeral Service supplied tables and shelters for meals.
The cooperation was “a model example of partnerships ... working together with various organizations toward a common goal,” said Patricia Dombroski, Mid-Atlantic regional office administrator for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. She was one of several federal and state officials at the lunch on Thursday to commend the library system for providing the meals.
“You created the right environment” for the program, Enid Costley, the Library of Virginia’s children’s and youth services consultant, told Barley privately. “I’m proud of you.”
“I feel like we made a difference” in children’s lives, Barley said.
They probably did, according to Hershey. Considering that most students in Henry County and Martinsville public schools qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, he thinks many of those pupils could be hungry this summer while schools are closed.
In the past school year, 4,906 students in the Henry County Public Schools and 1,714 students in the Martinsville City Public Schools qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Those numbers represented 66.25 percent and 75.47 percent of those school systems’ students, respectively, statistics from the Virginia Department of Education’s school nutrition program office show.
Hershey, who became the health district’s director about nine weeks ago, said he was astonished when he heard those statistics.
“The bottom line,” Hershey said, is that most local students “are at risk of going hungry.”
“If you add those not yet of school age, the number is probably much higher,” he said.
It is critical that students continue getting nutritious meals during the summer, said Dr. Michael Welch, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Community Nutrition.
Hunger has negative effects on children, Hershey emphasized.
Citing sources such as a Harvard University study and the National Institutes of Health, he said, for example, that hungry children are more likely to be sick and have behavioral, emotional and learning problems.
“Good nutrition, particularly in the first three years of life, is important for establishing a good foundation ... for a child’s future physical and mental health, academic achievement and economic productivity,” he added.
Students who received meals from the library this summer should be ready to learn when classes resume later this month, officials said.
Barley said she hopes her library can feed children again next year, and do it on more days.