SUMMER FEEDING

William Hatchett, an employee of Henry County Public Schools, hads out fresh meals to children at one of the neighborhood delivery locations this summer.

Everyone is bound to miss a meal once or twice in their lifetimes. Lunch dates fall to the wayside. Distractions occur at dinnertime. Folks sleep through breakfast.

But for some children, skipped meals in the summertime aren’t as unintentional as people might hope.

In America, the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 41 million people struggle with hunger. Out of that number, 13 million individuals are children.

In the southwest region of Virginia, Feeding America Southwest Virginia recently reported that one in eight people struggles with hunger. One out of every six children in the nonprofit organization’s service area faces food insecurity.

It’s a huge problem affecting some 12,000 in Henry and Patrick counties, and the cost of address it has been estimated to be about $5.6 million.

School systems, churches, nonprofit agencies and individuals line up every summer to ensure that children normally fed in free school meal programs don’t go hungry because school is out.

There are 2,690 food insecure people in Martinsville, rounding  out at 20% of the city’s population.

Henry County seems slightly better off when looking at the 14% food insecurity rate, but that’s 7,200 residents suffering from not knowing where their next meals will come, which creates an entirely different perspective.

The discrepancy between the percentage rate and number of individuals impacted occurs because of the population range. There are just more than 13,500 people in Martinsville, and 51,200 in Henry County.

Residents of Patrick County also experience food insecurity at a rate of 12%, impacting 2,140 people.

Leading the charge, local schools – who offer free breakfasts and lunches to students during the school year — will extend the service throughout the summer.

Churches and public sites, such as libraries, also will serve hot, nutritious meals to students for the remainder of this month, July and the beginning of August.

Whether a child’s parent makes a six-figure salary or lives paycheck to paycheck, all children – from birth to 18 years of age – who request a meal at one of the sites receives one.

“Our community has demonstrated need as a high-poverty area and, therefore, students do not have to demonstrate individual need to participate in the meals program,” said Monica Hatchett, Henry County Public Schools director of communications and organizational learning. “We believe this is a critical component in student participation as they are not restrained by providing particular documentation of financial status or other needs. By nature of being a student in our community, they qualify to receive healthy meals.”

Appetizing options at the majority of participating sites change daily, just like offerings in a school lunch line. Each day, students enjoy a main entrée, like a chicken sandwich, a vegetable side and a serving of fruit for lunch. Children also select their choice of milk.

The option of a freshly prepared meal comes as a welcomed weight off of many parents’ shoulders. While numbers aren’t yet available for how many children the program served during its first week, providing multiple locations throughout the city and county to receive the meal makes the service accessible to more people.

As an additional service, neighborhood distribution drivers deliver meals from the cafeteria to certain locales, making unpredictable transportation fears for hungry children a moot point.

“By providing neighborhood distribution as well as feeding sites across the county, we know that more students have the opportunity to access healthy meals at a variety of times and locations that are easily accessible to them,” Hatchett said.

No matter if children come directly to a specified meal site or use the neighborhood distribution service, taking advantage of the summer feeding program helps meet the needs of an alarming monetary number.

Recent Feeding America Southwest Virginia’s findings show $1.076 million is needed to meet food insecurity strains in Patrick County, a $1.269 million in Martinsville and $3.346 million in Henry County.

“We know that our students may not always have easy access to nutritious food during the day and we want to make sure that they receive the support they need to be healthy year-round,” Hatchett said.

There are 24 sites in HCPS’s grant-funded program and around the Martinsville area this summer, predominantly operating Monday through Thursday. Each site, located from Martinsville to Bassett, operates on its own hours and schedule.

There are also specific dates for 12 area churches from Ridgeway to Fieldale for children who attend Vacation Bible School services during the month of June.

In July, eight churches from Spencer to Stanleytown will host Vacation Bible School weeks in tandem with feeding children.

Five school supply assistance sites will offer free meals on select days in the summer. Some take off the week of July 1-5.

Eight camps and daycares in the area will offer free meals for children enrolled in the programs.

Martinsville City Public Schools will offer warm meals for children at both elementary schools, the middle school and the high school. Hungry children may also take advantage of a free meal at North View Garden Apartments and the First Baptist Church of East Martinsville.

Children needing food in Patrick County may visit Stuart Baptist Church in Stuart on July 1-25, Monday through Thursday, for breakfast and lunch, according to information available on Feeding America Southwest Virginia’s website.