By Emma Derr
Buena Vista school officials are waiting to hear whether the federal government will provide funding for Enderly Heights Elementary School’s summer lunch program that fed 2,000 meals to children in Buena Vista last year.
“When you see these kids come down the line and get fresh fruits and vegetables that they won’t get at any other time,” said Becky Brown, director of nutritional services for Buena Vista public schools. “It puts a smile on my face.”
The summer lunch program is designed to provide healthy food to kids who may not have access to adequate meals at home. Over 60 percent of students enrolled in Buena Vista City schools qualify for free and reduced lunch during the academic year.
“If you aren’t eating you can’t learn because you’re thinking about when your next meal will be,” Brown said. “It really can affect your education.”
Officials say Buena Vista’s families are struggling to feed their kids because so many of them have lost their jobs.
“We had one little girl last year who had never seen a grape before,” Brown said. “The families were thankful that all summer long we served foods like cherry tomatoes, fruits and veggies.”
In the past few years, two key employers shut down plants in Buena Vista. In 2015, the cigarette paper manufacturer Mundet-Hermetite closed and left 46 workers without jobs. One year later, Hunter Defense Technologies Global, which makes military equipment, left 80 people unemployed.
“There’s not much to do here except manufacturing,” said Monica Staton, director of Enderly Elementary’s academic enrichment program that runs year-round.
The summer lunch program operated Monday through Thursday. Staton said on Fridays, many children enrolled in her academic program didn’t bring packed lunches with them.
“I would run home and grab some bread and peanut butter to feed them myself,” Staton said. “There is a definite need.”
Buena Vista is one of several communities in Virginia that struggles with what is known as food insecurity, the lack of access to affordable, nutritious food.
“We are just a very poor community,” Brown said. “There are many homeless families in Buena Vista that no one knows about and a huge amount of food insecurity.”
The percentage of students at Buena Vista schools receiving free and reduced lunch has increased by 12 percent over the last three years. Buena Vista has more than twice as many students’ receiving free and reduced lunch as Lexington—61 percent versus 27 percent.
Children from a family of six are eligible for free meals during the school year if income is at or below $32,630 annually, according to Virginia Department of Education.
Brown said she expects participation to increase this year and wants to expand the program this summer to include two more sites, one in the county and one at Glen Maury Park.
“We’ve even talked about the Natural Bridge area and taking a food truck down there to serve any children in need,” Staton said.
Nearly 42 percent of Virginia public school students receive free and reduced meals during the school year.
But school lunches stop when the academic year ends. For some students in Buena Vista, the free lunches are the only meals they receive on any given day. The summer program will serve food to anyone under 18.
“We have people come off the street and ask for food,” Brown said. “We even had a couple from West Virginia come with their kids.”
Brown applied for the free-lunch grant offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last year, she received $3,600 to fund the program. This year she said she hopes to receive money to expand the program.
“Grants like these are on Mr. Trump’s chopping block,” Staton said. “But I hope we get it because we desperately need it in Buena Vista.”
Brandi Wheeler, 33, a Buena Vista resident, worked for the summer lunch program last year, and her four kids ate lunch at Enderly daily.
“My little boy thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world,” she said, “and it was a lot easier on me because I didn’t have to pack them all lunch every day.”
Brown said the program brings the community together.
“There can be a strong stigma around free hand-outs,” she said. “But I want people to realize it’s a hand up and no one should have to worry about food insecurities.”