In school cafeterias throughout the county, it certainly doesn’t feel like summer vacation. They’re busy with an army of employees working early morning hours to make sure no child in Loudoun goes hungry.
Loudoun County Public Schools is partnering with U.S. Department of Agriculture and its No Kid Hungry campaign to put on a summer meals program. Last year, the program, dubbed PowerFuel, served almost 30,000 meals—11,000 breakfasts and 16,000 lunches. Now, in its third year, they are rolling out a delivery program in hopes of feeding more children this summer.
“We’re working on offering as many kids meals as we can,” School Nutrition Services Director Becky Domokos-Bays said. “Because we know just because school stops, doesn’t mean hunger does.”
It’s not easy for a county with a high average income to qualify for federal funding to pay for a program like PowerFuel, according to Domokos-Bays. In Loudoun, just more than 13,500 students come from families with an income low enough to participate in the federal free and reduced-price meal program. That’s 17 percent of the overall student population.
But in nine schools, more than 50 percent of the enrolled students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. And that’s the threshold the federal government wants to see before designating the school an “open site” for summer meals. Open sites mean anyone under the age of 18 can come and eat for free. No questions asked.
“At first glance, you think 17 percent isn’t a big number,” Nutrition Services Specialist Greg Holmes said, referring to the percentage of Loudoun students from low-income families. “But that’s still thousands of kids who rely on the schools for meals. We want to make sure they have plenty to eat over the summer, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
This summer, the nine schools serving as “open sites” are: Rolling Ridge Elementary, Sterling Elementary, Sully Elementary, Guilford Elementary, Sugarland Elementary, Forest Grove Elementary, Leesburg Elementary, Dominion High School and Riverside High School. All of the listed elementary schools serve breakfast weekdays from 8 to 9 a.m. and lunch from noon to 1 p.m. The listed high schools serve breakfast from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. and lunch from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.
To get food into more little hands beyond those nine schools, the Nutrition Services staff is running two other type of programs: serving meals at schools that already have hundreds of students on site for camps and summer schools, and delivering meals to sites throughout the county.
Meals are prepared in kitchens at three schools and loaded up in big, white vans. To make it clear that all children—truly all—are welcome to come and eat, an orange sign has been attached to each van that reads “Free Summer Meals—available for all children. No registration required.” It also asks passersby to text “food” to 877-877 for details about the meal sites near them.
“We want to make sure everyone knows we’re in the neighborhood and they’re welcome to come,” Domokos-Bays said.
Meals are delivered to the four neighborhoods that host the Town of Leesburg’s R.O.C.K. (Recreation Outreach to Community Kids) program: Heritage Square, Evans Ridge, The Fields of Leesburg, and Fort Evans. Meals are also taken to Sugarland Elementary School to feed kids enrolled in Camp REAL, and to kids in a program called Healthy Plate at Lucketts Elementary School.
Domokos-Bays said the best way to feed more kids is by giving them a reason to come to the school or one of the delivery sites. “What we found is that the most successful thing is if there’s a program at the school,” she said. Even something as small as a book giveaway or a crafts corner will bring families out. “So the kids are there already and we can make sure they leave full.”
One example of that is at Ball’s Bluff Elementary School in Leesburg. It’s one of the county’s busiest school sites this summer, with three different programs under one roof. Starting this week, the school is home to general education summer school, special education summer school, and a county-run camp. On Tuesday morning alone, the cafeteria staff fed 169 students.
In the classrooms just after the first bell, students could be seen sipping on freshly made fruit smoothies while gathering around their teachers for morning story time.
“They love it,” said Casey Smith, principal of the summer school program at Ball’s Bluff. “A student told me yesterday it was her favorite day of school ever.”
Smith especially loves that the free meals are offered to any student, no matter their income level. It creates an inclusive environment right at the start of each day. “No one is saying ‘oh you can eat, but you can’t.’ So there’s no stigma. Everyone is welcome.”
Every summer for the past three years, the meals program has fed more students, and Domokos-Bays hopes to see that momentum continue.