City public schools receives nutrition award for second year in a row

HCPS school lunch – file photo by Holly Marcus

By Sergio Ossorio, contributor

As is the case in many communities across the country, food security for students and their families is a growing concern for Harrisonburg City Public Schools.

“Food is such a basic need for people,” said Andrea Early, executive director of school nutrition for HCPS. “All students just need to have access to good healthy meals to be well nourished and to do all the important work that we need them to do while they’re here in school.”

To help meet that need, Early and her colleagues run a growing number of nutrition programs that offer multiple meal options to students both during the year and during breaks. And last November, the division was recognized with an award from the No Kid Hungry Virginia campaign for the second year in a row.

According to a press release, HCPS was one of 15 school divisions in the state to receive the Dorothy S. McAuliffe School Nutrition Award last November. The only other school system in the region to receive the recognition was Staunton City Public Schools.

No Kid Hungry is a national campaign run by Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger organization. Its primary focus is to find solutions to childhood hunger through nutritious breakfasts programs and helping families develop skills in shopping and cooking on a budget.

Claire Mansfield, state director for No Kid Hungry Virginia, said the school nutrition award celebrates school divisions that participate in all available federal child nutrition programs, including school breakfast, lunch, supper, and summer meals. Launched in 2017, the award is named after the former First Lady of Virginia Dorothy McAuliffe in recognition of her commitment to reducing childhood hunger.

In order to qualify for the award, school divisions must meet the following criteria:

  • At least 70 percent of students who qualify for free/reduced meals and eat school lunch are also eating school breakfast.
  • Division is sponsoring and serving meals/snacks through the At-Risk Afterschool Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), if eligible.
  • Division is sponsoring and serving summer meals through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) or National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Seamless Summer Option (SSO), if eligible.

How HCPS does it

Because more than 50% of city students qualify for federal school nutrition programs, HCPS is eligible for all of the federal nutrition programs, Early said.

Many students’ days begin with one of the division’s “alternative breakfast models,” like Breakfast in the Classroom, Grab and Go Breakfast, and Second-Chance Breakfast. All of these, Mansfield said, take breakfast out of the traditional before-school, in-the-cafeteria model to make breakfast a part of the school day. As a result, these programs see high levels of participation.

Then there’s At Risk Meals, a dinner program at Harrisonburg High School offered to students enrolled in night school. The program, now in effect for three years, provides them with a full meal.

The HCPS nutrition program doesn’t get summers off. The division also operates a Mobile Café during the summer. That program includes an enrichment coordinator who leads activities that accompany summer meals. The school nutrition team is also committed to serving meals to their students during school breaks and unanticipated closures, such as snow days.

“We are always looking for ways to reduce barriers to students accessing our meals,” Early said.

Locally-sourced food

Another facet of HCPS’s school nutrition programs is its commitment to locally sourced food. In 2007, before launching any of the programs above, Early said the division began sourcing hydroponic lettuce from a Dayton farmer. All beef served at HCPS is raised in Virginia and processed in Lynchburg, and some chicken is sourced from Harrisonburg’s own Shenandoah Valley Organic.

Accompanying programmatic efforts are designed to educate students about agriculture and the local farmers that grow their food. Each month, HCPS does a Farm-to-School feature, in which students receive a mini-lesson about a particular food grown during that month. Students also learn about what farm the item came from, how the climate influences its production, and its health benefits.

Lessons to be learned – universal meals

Early said a movement toward universal meals is now underway across the country. That approach advocates free meals to all students in public schools, regardless family income.   

“The most important thing when looking at the overarching goal of keeping kids well-nourished is for there to be a move towards universal meals in schools,” Early said. “I think that would 100% be the right thing for us to do as a nation.”

Mansfield, of No Kid Hungry Virginia, described it as a means to a greater end.

“When schools effectively feed children and prevent hunger they benefit from better attendance, reduced tardiness, fewer visits to the nurse’s office, and overall better academic performance,” she said. “Academic success improves the success for the community as a whole.”

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