Richmond-area summer meal programs offer free food to kids and families
Children can eat breakfast and lunch at select parks and community facilities through Aug. 18.
Richmond Public Schools’ summer meal program ended Thursday. However, children can continue receiving these meals through the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Their summer food service program runs until Aug. 18.
As stated in Feeding America’s 2018 "Map the Meal Gap" report, there are approximately 35,400 people experiencing food insecurity in Richmond. This includes about 20% of children, many of whom are dependent on school meals to remain fed.
In addition to feeding children enrolled in summer education, RPS offers all children — regardless of residence or enrollment in the school system — free breakfast and lunch at select schools while summer school is in session.
Adults can also eat for a small fee, and there are no forms required. Shannon Ebron, the school district’s nutrition services director, said that these meals follow federal Department of Agriculture guidelines for child nutrition programs.
“Our meals have protein, they have whole grains, fruit, vegetable and milk. And students can take all five,” Ebron said. “During breakfast, we primarily serve whole grains and fruit and milk.”
Ebron praised the nutritional value of these meals. “School meals are the healthiest meals that a child can eat. ... We really pay attention to the amount of sodium, the amount of fat, the amount of sugar that we put in our meals.”
Although RPS has completed its program, Richmond Parks and Recreation will continue offering similar meals through its federally funded summer food service. It ends on Aug. 18, right before the new school year on Aug. 21.
The local parks department also complies with US departments of education and agriculture requirements. Lunches contain “1 cup milk; ¾ cup juice, fruit and/or vegetable; 1 [serving of] grain; 2 oz of meat or meat alternate,” according to Valerie Cash, who is part of the department’s federal foods division.
This program is only open to children on weekdays. Breakfast is served from 9 to 10 a.m., and lunch from noon to 1 p.m.
Renesha Parks, chief wellness officer at RPS, said, “Although the RPS meal sites will be closing ... [children] still have access to meals that's close to their home. And then for those parents who have difficulties, then we can assist in any way that we can with ensuring that they are able to be provided meals.”
Last year, the federal foods division of Richmond’s parks and recreation “provided over 42,000 meals to children in need,” according to Cash. “This summer, that number is surely to increase.
"Due to the [increased] cost of everything, ensuring that our children in need obtain a nutritious meal when they may not otherwise have anything to eat, is a necessity.”
The growth of food prices remains higher than the historical average. Just this year, "all food prices are predicted to increase 6.0 percent” as reported in the USDA Food Price Outlook.
Residents can also visit the food ministry at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church year-round.
It hosts a weekly Sunday community supper starting at 6:30 p.m., as well as a Wednesday supper during the school year. Anyone is allowed to join these meals, where payment is optional and donation-based. Meals are cooked by members of the church.
Anna Jones, who manages the farmers market at St. Stephen’s, said that there are other opportunities throughout the week.
“On Mondays, we have a food pantry, and it is open from one to three in the afternoon. And we have a choice pantry, which means that patrons can come here and shop in our pantry and choose the groceries that they need,” Jones said. “They don't just receive a prepackaged bag. And as part of that we have a lot of fresh produce, which is donated by our farmers market vendors.”
Patrons can also get their pantry groceries delivered for free through a partnership grant with DoorDash and FeedMore.
St. Stephen’s has also expanded the accessibility of its farmers market, according to Jones: “Just recently, we began accepting SNAP benefits at the farmers market. So, people who have EBT cards can use those. ... We're also participating in Virginia Fresh Match, which doubles the amount of money that SNAP recipients can spend on fresh produce.”
These sites also provide social engagement, such as “team building activities, arts and crafts, and athletics to name a few” said Cash of the recreation centers.
As for St. Stephen’s, Sunday supper is an opportunity to meet and mingle with others, having hosted 70 diners this past week. Food trucks and music provide an added layer to the social nature of the farmers market.
Jones added that there are people who’ve been coming to the pantry “for a number of years, and they get to know each other, and our volunteers get to know them. And I know that everyone enjoys that element of community there too.”
To Ebron, RPS fosters a sense of community and stability by providing an opportunity for people to see familiar faces — like Jones.
“Some of [our cafeteria staff] sign up to work in the summer. And so, our students and our community members still see the same smiling faces that they see during the normal school year,” she said. “We still use our traditional cafeteria service lines. So, the service model is very familiar.”
In these efforts against food insecurity, Ebron said that these meals are important because “hunger does not take a break” and that “a hungry child cannot learn.”
“Think about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Eating is just as important as breathing. And so, we want to make sure to the greatest degree possible, we're serving all of our families who are able to access meals,” said Parks.
Jones said she’s learned that “when someone is experiencing food insecurity, it's never just that. Maybe they've just lost a job, or they have high childcare costs or something like that. So, it's always more than food.”