One out of every six children across the United States does not have reliable access to food, and the problem is worse in the South.
In low-income rural communities, many children rely on a web of service providers for a daily supply of healthy food. Public schools serve as the backbone in this system, with federal programs funding national breakfast, lunch and after-school meals for impoverished students.
In winter months, snowstorms often close schools, sometimes for multiple days at a time. The decision to close schools comes at the price of missed meals for children who rely on them, so in recent years more administrators have started opening school cafeterias to students and their families on snow days. During a stretch of historically cold days in January, schools in Virginia – which had closed due to bad weather -became community centers for families seeking food and warmth.
The practice of opening cafeterias on snow days is growing, encouraged by a 2016 memo from the United States Department of Agriculture's Child Nutrition Programs that clarified meals could be served during unanticipated closures such as snow days, and reimbursed through the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program's Seamless Summer. Some schools already were doing this through another program, At-Risk After-school Meals as part of the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), but the memo provided another avenue to expand the practice.
In Roanoke City Public Schools, 87 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch compared with a statewide average of 44 percent. Superintendent Rita Bishop had long struggled with guilt that went along with closing school knowing that her decision would mean some students went hungry.
"I was working really late in my office on a Thursday night, and we had been closed for four days for snow, when my phone rang and this little boy said, 'Lady are you going to open school tomorrow?'" Bishop remembered in a story quoted by Dorothy McAuliffe, wife of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. "I said, 'I really don't know, honey, but I'm going to make the call and it will be on television.' He replied, 'Please open. I am SO hungry.' It was life-changing for me."
Food deserts, particularly in rural areas without public transportation, complicate matters further. Looming in the background is Republican control of the federal government and the potential for major cuts to nutrition programs that could severely damage efforts to fight hunger.
Bishop previously partnered with community agencies to try to fill that need, but three years ago started to open cafeterias at five city schools on snow days. Not every snow day—of which there have been seven so far this academic year, not counting delayed openings—but on days when she knew students would be more vulnerable, such as Mondays following a weekend, or when there were consecutive snow days. The schools were chosen at sites around the city that can be relatively easily cleared by snow removal equipment.
When school is closed but the cafeterias are open, the service is promoted by robocall and on the system's Facebook page. A couple of hundred people came out on each of the two snow days the cafeterias served food in January.
"I think we would all agree the kids who really need it tend to get there," Bishop said.
Roanoke City Schools get reimbursed for this food through the At-Risk After-school Meals program, which is in its third year there. About 8,000 students participate in the program, and the system is on track to serve about 75,000 meals through that program this academic year, said Ellen Craddock, the schools' director of food services.
Other western Virginia schools also opened their cafeterias during snow-closures this winter. In Bristol (76 percent free and reduced-eligible), officials opened Virginia Middle School to give students a free meal, give parents a reduced price meal, and send home more food for the weekend.
In rural Floyd County, population 15,731 (free and reduced-eligible rate 50 percent) cafeterias opened on two different snow days in January. The schools fed about 200 people between the two days. This was the first year the school system had tried the program, said Superintendent John Wheeler, although it has long worked with Plenty!, a community food bank, to schedule food deliveries to hungry families on snow days.
Opening cafeterias on snow days makes a difference for hundreds of families just in Roanoke and Floyd County, but on the whole those decisions are only a small piece compared to the tapestry of anti-poverty programs that support them on a day-to-day basis.
It's difficult to get a sense of just how many school systems in Virginia offered similar service, in part because of bureaucratic confusion at the state level. The state's management of the At-Risk After-school Meals, the Summer Food Service Program, and the Seamless Summer Option—all of which are used to fund cafeterias that open during unanticipated school closings—is shifting from the Virginia Department of Health to the Department of Education.
"Up until now, it's been ad-hoc," said Courtney Jones, child nutrition programs supervisor for the Department of Education. "But we heard from a bunch of divisions that the need is there, and we want to start implementing this program and planning ahead. I think there's a really good opportunity to implement this statewide, and to make sure that everybody has the same guidance on the snow day situation."
According to Jones, 79 school divisions are participating in the At-Risk After-School program this year, along with another 13 in the Seamless Summer program, making a total of 89 systems that could potentially use their federal funds to serve students from cafeterias on snow days.
Why does this matter? Jones pointed back to one of Dorothy McAuliffe's maxims.
"One of her taglines was, 'You can't be hungry to learn if you're just plain hungry.' That's absolutely true," Jones said. "I know how distracted and frustrated I get when I'm hungry. To be a little one with a growing body and growing mind, and to not have access to three meals a day inhibits development. For us, these programs, particularly the summer food service program, are under-utilized. We're trying to ensure that school divisions, who are the experts in treating their students, are participating to the fullest extent they can."
This tilt comes largely from McAuliffe, who used the publicity that attended her proximity to the governor to ardently advocate for school nutrition programs. Pamela Irvine, who has served as president and CEO of Feeding America Southwest Virginia for 36 years, credited McAuliffe for helping to "move the needle" toward ending childhood hunger. Irvine still sees challenges, particularly in rural areas where transportation can be a hindrance, even for mobile food bank trucks that are used to deliver food to low-income hotspots in the organization's 26-county area.
"I know how distracted and frustrated I get when I'm hungry. To be a little one with a growing body and growing mind, and to not have access to three meals a day inhibits development," said Courtney Jones, child nutrition programs supervisor for the Department of Education.
Salaam Bhatti, a lawyer with the Virginia Poverty Law Center and director of the Virginia Hunger Solutions coalition, said much of his organization's focus is on closing the gap between eligibility and engagement. He rattled off a list of southwest Virginia counties that had differences of five percentage points or more between the poverty rate and percentage enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program.
"We have a huge gap in families who could have food at their homes for their kids but either aren't aware of SNAP, or are against the idea of public welfare or public benefits so they won't sign up," Bhatti said.
Food deserts, particularly in rural areas without public transportation, complicate matters further. Looming in the background is Republican control of the federal government and the potential for major cuts to nutrition programs that could severely damage efforts to fight hunger. Donald Trump's proposed budget, for instance, would cut SNAP by $213 billion over 10 years, including a plan to replace purchasing power in part with "USDA Food packages," which would consist of "shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables"—but no fresh produce.
Opening cafeterias on snow days makes a difference for hundreds of families just in Roanoke and Floyd County, but on the whole those decisions are only a small piece compared to the tapestry of anti-poverty programs that support them on a day-to-day basis. Even so, they're important to those who need them.
"I really look forward to snow days," said Jones, the state official, "but that's not the reality for everyone. Making sure those who need access to meals on snow days, over the weekend, during summer vacation gives them a place to turn to to make sure their kids are receiving healthy nutritious meals."