Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Family Nutrition Program will provide nutrition education as part of an $8.8 million demonstration project to be conducted in schools with high poverty rates in Richmond and Southwest Virginia to reduce childhood hunger among low-income families.

Virginia's First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe will spearhead the Virginia Hunger-Free Kids Act Demonstration Project. McAuliffe has dedicated her time and energy to eliminating childhood hunger and improving access to fresh, Virginia-grown agricultural products.  

“This project is about breaking down the barriers that separate hungry children and families from the good food they need,” McAuliffe said in a news release. “We will build on successful local and regional efforts and pilot innovative models for reducing hunger and food insecurity.”

The project will combat hunger among school-age children by transforming schools into “food hubs” during the 2015-2016 school year and providing additional assistance to families over the following summer vacation. 

During the school year, students in the selected schools will be offered a nutritious breakfast, lunch and after-school dinner — and packs of non-perishable food to take home on weekends and breaks.

School families participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will receive an additional $60 a month in benefits during the summer. Families of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals but not enrolled in SNAP also will receive $60 a month to improve food security.

In addition, one parent or other caregiver from each participating family will be encouraged to participate in a nutrition education program on shopping and preparing healthy food on a limited budget, conducted by Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Family Nutrition Program.

“We are delighted that extension was sought out as the educational arm of this project,” said Elena Serrano, director of the program. “This project takes a holistic approach to combating hunger. Its goal is to get more food to the people that need it most and also teaches participants to make more informed food choices on a limited budget.”

The participating school divisions are Bristol, Buchanan County, Galax, Grayson County, Lee County, Richmond, Scott County and Smyth County.

The divisions were selected by the Virginia Department of Education— which is serving as the lead agency on the project — based on the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals and state accreditation status. The department’s Office of School Nutrition will provide day-to-day oversight and coordination of the demonstration project.

Nearly 20 percent of households in Southwest Virginia experience poverty, compared with 11 percent statewide. The median annual household income in the region is $37,663 — 59 percent of the statewide average of $63,636. Richmond’s poverty rate stands at nearly 27 percent and the city’s median household income of $40,496 is 63 percent of the statewide average.

The Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Department of Social Services, the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth, the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, and Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit focused on ending child hunger, are also participating in the project.