A popular lunch spot in Henry County is abuzz every weekday as customers scan a rotating menu featuring items like spicy black bean burgers, colorful chef salads and flavorful fajitas. The line moves quickly and staff members smile as they cheerfully fill up trays and answer questions about the day’s specials.
But to enter this establishment, you’ll need to be a V.I.P. – a Very Important Pupil. Welcome to the Campbell Court Elementary cafeteria, where every Henry County student just happens to be a V.I.P.
Behind the scenes, the Campbell Court Elementary nutrition team is committed to making sure students get the healthy food they need to thrive in the classroom by offering a full day’s worth of meals, starting with school breakfast. Staff periodically wear T-shirts and hats emblazoned with, “We love to stir things up,” a nod to their commitment to serving kids in the district fresh, healthy and delicious meals.
As the state director for the No Kid Hungry Virginia campaign, I regularly engage with school cafeterias across the state, and I am constantly inspired by the creativity, commitment and passion displayed in our school kitchens.
Henry County is not alone. In Bristol City Public Schools, kids choose breakfast and lunch items made with local veggies and meats. Seasonally inspired recipes featuring broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers and beef come from local farms and regularly rotate on menus. The fresh approach is working: The school system consistently has high participation for its meal programs among students.
Bristol City Schools have been sourcing menu items from local farms since the 1990s. Fortunately for Southwest Virginia students, the farm-to-school approach is a growing trend in nearby counties.
In addition to Bristol City Schools, Pulaski County Public Schools is also serving up mouth-watering local meals. They’re sourcing fresh beef from Pulaski County farmers for dishes like their juicy burgers. Another Southwest division, Buchanan County Public Schools, is partnering with Big Sandy Water and Soil Conservation District to build raised beds so students in afterschool programming can get their hands in the soil and taste the fresh vegetables and fruits directly from the garden.
Soon, more students will have Virginia-grown fruits and vegetables on their plates, too. The new Virginia Food for Virginia Kids initiative is bringing local food procurement statewide. Spearheaded by the Virginia Department of Education, the program is increasing capacity for school food programs to procure, process and serve more local foods in their meal programs.
More than ever, schools are playing a critical role in getting children the nutrition they need inside and outside of the classroom. This year, Louisa County Public Schools is launching a food pantry that will connect students with healthy food and snacks for the weekend. Meanwhile, Feeding Southwest Virginia is offering thousands of summer meals in addition to Kids’ Farmers Markets at pop-up sites throughout many rural southwest counties. These events give families struggling with hunger an opportunity to pick up fresh produce in a safe and welcoming environment while also providing nutrition and financial literacy education to children.
Last year, we saw exciting state policy changes that are helping connect more kids to meals as well. Virginia expanded eligibility for free meals during this school year through funding in the state budget. Today, students with families at or below 185% of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals, compared with 130% previously. This expanded new eligibility means approximately 64,500 more kids can access free meals. Many of these kids have working parents who make too much to qualify for benefits, but too little to get by, or who are often just one emergency or unexpected expense away from hunger.
As families navigate historic inflation, rising food costs and the expiration of pandemic-era benefits, school meals will continue to be an important resource for families. In fact, free school meals can help eligible families save $11 to $39 per month on grocery bills, according to an analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
If your school doesn’t provide free meals for all students, parents can submit applications directly to their school or district at any time during the school year.
Whether or not you have a child in school, we all have a role to play in supporting our school meal programs. Some of the most shared and beloved stories online are about local chefs and restaurants. The same ingenuity and love of food is happening every day in our school cafeterias. Please thank your school chefs, and talk about school cafeterias with friends and family and encourage peers to turn in meal applications. While you’re at it, share this column with them.
Now is the perfect time to celebrate our cafeteria teams. Earlier this month on May 5 was School Lunch Hero Day, an opportunity to celebrate the hardworking staff in our school cafeterias. Virginia school lunch heroes are making a big difference in our cafeterias, classrooms and in the commonwealth.
Every day, nutrition teams are stirring things up and helping Virginia students succeed. We should all be proud and immensely grateful they’re a part of our community.