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With Schools Closed, Communities Pitch In to Feed Kids

dcJohn via flickr.com / CC

Now that Governor Northam has shut down schools to stem the outbreak of COVID-19, there’s a push across the state to make sure children who rely on subsidized meals don’t go hungry.

Deanna Fierro spends most Monday mornings in the classroom teaching. But on the first day of a statewide school closure, she was in a cafeteria, packing bags with sandwiches and milk. She’s one of about 500 Richmonders who signed up to volunteer at schools now operating as emergency food distribution centers.

Fierro’s taught in Virginia for nine years, and in that time she’s come to understand how school resources offer a safety net for those most vulnerable.  "Schools are part of the center of the community and one of the things that we provide, besides giving students an education, is a second home," Fierro notes.

About half of the K-12 population qualifies for free or reduced lunch, according to the Virginia Department of Education.  Now, schools and nonprofits are scrambling to help families deal with the scarcity brought on by a public health crisis.

Eddie Oliver leads the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.  "We don’t know how long this is going to last," he admits.  "And so we could be looking at children going a month or so without access to the nutritional support that they get at school."

With the recent run on grocery stores, Oliver says food banks have seen a decline in large donations. Nevertheless, he says the warehouses have enough supplies for now, and are able to keep distributing to local pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. 

But those organizations often require families to get their food on-site. Soon that might need to change, as officials urge the public to minimize potential exposure to coronavirus by limiting group interactions.  "Being more isolated than usual, there is likely going to be a need to do more house-to-house or even neighborhood-to-neighborhood distribution models," Oliver says. 

Social distancing isn’t the only complicating factor.   Limited access to transportation can also keep families from going to food distribution sites. 

In response to the challenge, Richmond school superintendent Jason Kamras announced that the district has added pick-up locations in addition to those at the schools.   That includes a restaurant parking lot in Fulton, a community on the border of Richmond and Henrico County. Prior to the expansion, none of the public schools in the neighborhood were offering food supplies. 

Breanne Armbrust is executive director of the Neighborhood Resource Center of Greater Fulton. She started organizing community members to brace for the impact of school closures even before Governor Northam’s announcement.  The effects of the shut-down are hitting families hard, she says. Many are losing work and pay, and are struggling to stretch the little that’s left.  "So that leads itself to families having to make tough decisions around, you know. What do you do with that food?"

In the coming weeks, the center plans to ramp up the number of meals it serves from about 150 to 500 a day. A portion of those will be delivered to residents’ doorsteps, with minimal contact between workers, volunteers and recipients.

Armbrust says time is of the essence for families living paycheck-to-paycheck.  "They’re good for probably the first two weeks of this. And where they will start to feel a situation that begins to head into a crisis is beyond the two-week mark."

Much like the neighborhood it serves, the Fulton center is strapped for resources.  Without additional funding to meet the demand brought on by the pandemic, Armbrust says the small nonprofit will have to close sooner than later, leaving families already dealing with lost wages and overdue bills to grapple with the impending reality of hunger.

And yet, in the face of uncertainty, locals are pitching in, trying to support one another with what they have. Communities are not just looking to the helpers -- they are the helpers.

Many school systems are delivering food on school buses.  Richmond City Schools plans to add that option to its efforts soon.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.