This proved to be a banner year for Henry County’s summer meal programs, thanks to loosened restrictions.
This is according to officials behind programs like No Kid Hungry and the Henry County School Nutrition Team, who praise federal lawmakers for addressing a particular hurdle in serving meals to kids during the summer.
“Summer can be one of the hungriest times for kids in Virginia,” said Thompson Bertschy, Virginia representative for No Kid Hungry. “During the school year, many kids are receiving those free meals from the school … but when school is closed for the summer, these meals disappear.”
Under previous rules, meals had to be served and eaten at designated locations like schools. The federal rule change, according to Bertschy, allows participants to pick up meals and bring them home.
The rule change mirrors temporary changes put into effect during the pandemic.
The summer of 2023 was a sort of trial balloon to gauge the impact that allowing so-called non-congregate meals — those not eaten together at a central feeding site — would have on summer meal programs.
It’s a seemingly small change that proponents hope will have a big impact. Not only are participants no longer tethered to specific sites, they also have the option to take multiple meals home. This is particularly impactful for kids living in rural communities who might not have reliable transportation to and from meal sites.
“This allows for the potential grab-and-go,” Bertschy said, adding that deliveries to students’ homes are also now legally viable.
Henry County, according to Bertschy, served as an important point of interest, largely because of the program’s size despite the county’s rural status. This past June, Henry County served a little over 58,000 meals. In June of last year, prior to the rule change, the team served 22,107. To date Henry County schools have 6,903 enrolled students.
“Henry County goes above and beyond,” Bertschy said. “They have been going above and beyond for quite a while.”
This change has been pushed by No Kid Hungry for some time. Although Bertschy described non-congregate meals as an overlooked topic, that changed during the COVID-19 lockdown, when meal programs, operating throughout the pandemic instead of just during a summer, began citing hurdles.
No Kid Hungry operates in around 35 states. It’s a nonprofit advocacy group that works to mitigate food insecurity by addressing its root causes. In Virginia, it works with the Virginia Department of Education to support school programs across the state, Bertschy said.
Everything from food deserts to childhood poverty are factors the organization tries to address by direct programs or via lobbying public officials and lawmakers. Bertschy said No Kid Hungry played a part in the recent change, which came as part of a federal omnibus bill Congress passed late last year.
“No Kid Hungry has been advocating for non-congregate applications in rural areas for a number of years,” Bertschy said. “Even before the pandemic started, we knew that this was such a barrier for families.”
Much of the data gathered was from the pandemic. No Kid Hungry and other meal providers reported an uptick in participation following temporary relaxation of rules that prohibited take home meals and meal deliveries. Participation fell when the lockdown ended and the rules prohibiting site-specific meals were reinstated.
Under the changes, meal pick-ups and delivery entail multiple meals, breakfast and lunch, that last about a week. Both pick-ups and deliveries operate under the School Nutrition Team and are different ways to get meals to participants.
Henry County has offered summer meal programs since 2006, according to Marci Lexa, director of the county’s school nutrition programs. She said that she recognized Henry County as being a “high-need area” and convinced officials that meal programs should be extended into the summer.
Although the school system operated a meal program every summer since, this past summer was the first it could send meals home to students. Lexa said the change in convenience has been noticeable.
The meals were prepared and plated and were distributed one of four ways. Students attending summer school were provided plates, as were kids participating in the mobile Kids Cafe. Multiple meal pickup locations were set up at the elementary schools, while meals were also delivered to households on a case-by-case basis.
“They are seven days’ worth of breakfasts and seven days’ worth of lunches,” Lexa explained, adding that on Wednesdays meals were home delivered while on Thursdays participants picked them up.
Going forward, Lexa and Bertschy hope that childhood hunger will become less of a problem as the county grows. Until then they encourage more families to participate in the summer meals program. More information is online.
Correction Aug. 29, 2023: Thompson Bertschy is the Virginia representative for No Kid Hungry. His last name was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.