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How a public school district works to fill bellies 365 days a year

Photograph courtesy of Bristol Virginia Public Schools

A Bristol Virginia Public Schools kindergarten teacher noticed that when her 20 students returned from lunch each day, they repeatedly asked, “Are we going to get to eat again?”

It’s no coincidence that the Bristol, Va., district was in the first weeks of a new after-school supper program at its Highland View Elementary School.

“It took them two weeks to feel secure enough that they didn’t have to keep asking if that program was not going to stop, and that they were going to get to eat again every day,” says School Nutrition Program Director Kathy Hicks. “They were only 5 and they asked that question.”

It was during the 2016-17 school year that the district began to offer the after-school supper program, made available through a Virginia 365 Project grant, which provides funding for schools across the state to offer nutritious meals to students year-round. The state was awarded the grant by the United States Department of Agriculture following a competitive application process in 2015.

Bristol’s federal 365 grant is one of the many ways the district is providing for its students in an area where 82% qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. The $8.8 million grant allows the nutrition team to offer breakfast, lunch and dinner to Highland View students, while also ensuring that food is available to them while class is not in session.

“They are provided backpacks with food for any day they’re not in school, like spring break and on the weekends,” Hicks says. Over the summer, students’ families receive additional help through an electronic benefits transfer card to purchase food. “These students are covered with food in a multitude of ways every single day for 365 days a year.”

Although the grant is coming to a close at the end of this school year, Bristol is able to carry on its initiatives through a number of federally funded programs that cover other students in the district as well. 

Food for all

All Bristol Virginia Public School students are provided alternative breakfast and lunch every day through the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. Along with Highland View, three other schools in the district serve an after-school meal through the federally funded Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). The district is also part of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, another federally funded program that serves all Bristol public school students a snack of fresh produce during the day.

Individual schools run their own weekend backpack programs, where food-insecure students receive food from local pantries, grocery stores and churches to take home with them during the weekend.

“These students are covered with food in a multitude of ways every single day for 365 days a year.” —Kathy Hicks

Students’ meals are also covered during vacations. Bristol operates a year-round school where students can attend remedial schoolwork programs and eat a meal during winter and spring breaks.

During the summer, the district partners with the local Boys & Girls Club, public libraries and other community buildings to host summer meal sites.

Children throughout the district can also count on a meal in the winter, even if school is shut down because of the weather. On snow days, Bristol has set up its own meal sites to ensure students are still being fed. If the roads are safe, it even offers busses to shuttle students to and from the meals.

“There was a day we closed because the weather was near zero or below, so we provided transportation for any parents who wanted to send their children to come eat,” Hicks says.

Start with a pilot program

While Bristol offers a robust set of programs to keep students fed, the initiatives had humble beginnings.

Hicks often ran into some bumps along the way when setting them up: “It wasn’t anything that we couldn’t overcome, but we did have to work with some people to get all the logistics worked out to make everything work together.”

One of her main challenges was getting principals, teachers and other faculty on board. Some staff, such as janitors, worried that programs such as breakfast in the classroom would make a mess. Hicks decided to find those who were open to testing the programs and start there.

“I began one program at a time and worked out the kinks,” she says. “I found a receptive principal to start with, and a receptive teacher under that principal, and just piloted the programs.”

Those who were willing to host the pilots found that many of the issues they worried about were unfounded and quickly became advocates for the programs’ expansions, Hicks says.

Implementing the programs thoughtfully proved to be the key in making sure they are still around today. Hicks’ advice for other operators looking to tackle food insecurity through initiatives like these is to stay focused and take it one step at a time.

“It’s not going to be as complicated as you think. Just sit down and work out the details,” she says. “It’s a huge benefit to the students involved.”

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