Daily Press, May 19, 2019 at 10:00AM

By Josh Reyes, Staff Writer

(Newport News, VA) – For many students on the Peninsula, school isn’t just a place for learning — it’s a place they can reliably get one or two meals per day.

During the summer, when the vast majority of those students aren’t in school, a variety of efforts attempt to fill the gap and ensure students on summer break are getting the nutrition they need.

This summer, the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank plans to give out breakfast and lunch at 23 sites across the Peninsula. The meals will be cooked in the food bank’s commercial kitchen and bridge together federal nutritional requirements and food that kids like to eat, said Karen Joyner, the food bank’s chief executive officer.

Across Virginia, she said, almost 45% of students are eligible for free and reduced school meals, but only about 15% of those students participate in summer meals programs. Additionally, a quarter of people served by the food bank are children, and about 13% of all children in the state are food insecure.

Household grocery costs typically increase during the summer because the children are home more — Joyner said she sees some families with tripled grocery costs.

Barriers to the summer meals for children are often a lack of awareness, distance to a site and security concerns, Joyner said. She was glad to be expanding options to reach more children. Last summer, the food bank delivered breakfast and lunch at 17 sites, including several apartment complexes and churches. Joyner anticipated serving about 1,000 kids per day, with some also bringing food home to their families.

The Boys and Girls Club is more known for providing a safe place after school for recreation and homework, but the organization plays a role in making sure children have access to nutritious meals.

When students go to a Peninsula Boys and Girls Club after school, they can eat dinner served at the club and also get a snack. On a recent Thursday, children lined up to get a meal of a barbecue sandwich, vegetables, an orange and milk.

A staff member said the meal is really dinner, but it looks like a lunch, so the children call it lunch.

The Peninsula organization alters its food service in the summer to meet the changing need. During the summer, the clubs are open all day rather than just after school, and the meals shift to lunch and an afternoon snack.

Michele Benson, the chief development officer of Boys and Girls Club of the Virginia Peninsula, said attendance at the clubs increases from 950 to about 1,100 students per day. Annually, the clubs serve 345,000 meals and snacks.

The club has advocated for the resources to serve more meals, but resources available and the longer hours limit the clubs to the one meal and snack in the summer, Benson said.

This summer, the Boys and Girls Club is getting a boost from No Kid Hungry Virginia, which distributed $87,750 statewide for summer meals for children — the Boys and Girls Club of the Virginia Peninsula received $15,000. The goal of the funding is to help operations expand service and reach more children, according to a news release.

Benson said the money will support purchase of a vehicle and hiring staff to distribute meals to the club locations.

Some clubs also offer cooking classes, and a partnership with So All May Eat from Hampton Baptist Church teaches club members how to prepare a meal and sends participants home with all of the ingredients to make that meal at home.

“This teaches the kids how to cook and be more self-sufficient while empowering them to help out at home,” Benson said.

School divisions also make an effort to help their students over the summer. At Newport News and Hampton schools, about two-thirds of students are eligible for free and reduced meals, nearly 27,000 students total — 39 of 45 Newport News schools offer free meals for all students, and the remaining six offer free breakfast for all.

Both divisions plan to offer numerous meal sites where students can visit for meals — Hampton will have 23 and Newport News 25, according to school officials.