As we approach the official beginning of summer next week, our calendars begin to fill with graduation parties and backyard cookouts as summer crops like berries and tomatoes appear in our grocery stores, roadside stands, and farmers’ markets. Too many of our neighbors, however, struggle to put nutritious food on the table, with a variety of serious consequences for the health of our communities. I shared some information about the state of food insecurity in Virginia in my last column.
I’m always impressed by the innovation demonstrated by Virginia counties as they tackle problems in their communities, and I want to share a few examples with you of how several Virginia counties have worked to improve access to nutrition among county residents. Read on for some case studies and helpful resources.
Louisa County – Student Gardens and Breakfast in the Classroom
Louisa County’s program, a partnership between the school division and the County’s Cooperative Extension Office, won a VACo Achievement Award in 2016 for its innovative approach to providing access to healthy food and promoting healthy eating by getting kids excited about vegetables. We liked this program so much in King and Queen County that we borrowed it for our own schools!
The program started at Moss-Nuckols Elementary School, where second-grade students learn about planting vegetables with the assistance of volunteer Master Gardeners; students from Louisa County High School’s Future Farmers of America built the raised garden beds with the financial support of a “Fuel Up to Play 60” grant (a program sponsored by the National Dairy Council and the National Football League, in partnership with the US Department of Agriculture). The produce is harvested and served in the cafeteria, where it supplies enough greens for all cafeteria salads for most of the year. In addition to eating the produce as part of a regular school lunch, the students have a chance to sample the fruits of their labor at a tasting party, where the “two-bite rule” has encouraged many reluctant vegetable eaters to try – and enjoy– Swiss chard and brussels sprouts. Here is a short video of some of the planting and tasting.
As a follow-up to the success of the garden program, Moss-Nuckols Elementary also established a robust “Breakfast in the Classroom” program to make sure students got a nutritious start to the day. Staff had estimated that fewer than one-third of students were eating breakfast each day, despite more than 40 percent of the student body qualifying for free or reduced-price meals. The program eliminates the time pressure of waiting in line at the cafeteria for breakfast, as well as the stigma associated with qualifying for assistance with meals, by serving breakfast in the classroom. Teachers found that students arrived to class earlier and settled into instructional time more quickly. In one year, participation in daily breakfast increased from 28 percent to 50 percent, and teachers observed a reduction in tardiness. Best of all, the school achieved full accreditation.
Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Jenny Thompson attributes the program’s success to a strong partnership with the school system and support from teachers and staff, a view echoed by Director of Nutrition Services Randy Herman. The second-grade garden program is now in place at all four of the County’s elementary schools, and staff hopes to expand to more grade levels and perhaps to middle school as well. Randy Herman said, “This past spring, we were able to take the program full circle with our students,” explaining that high school agriculture students germinated seeds, which middle school students transplanted and nurtured into plants for the elementary students to plant in their gardens. Those vegetables are intended to be used in the summer feeding program and for the start of school in August. Herman also said that a “mini farm” outdoor learning lab is now in place at the high school, with plans for students to manage the planting and harvest of vegetables to be served at school.
Fairfax County – “Eat and Run” Program
Very young children are learning all the time, including eating and activity habits that can promote a lifetime of good health. Several years ago, Fairfax County found that about 30 percent of children entering kindergarten in the county were overweight or obese. In response, Fairfax County’s Office for Children, in collaboration with Live Healthy Fairfax, a community partnership working to strengthen the public health system and improve community health, developed the “Eat and Run” activity book for child care providers to promote healthy eating and physical activity for children, using funding from a grant from the Centers for Disease Control. The book contains 15 activities focusing on healthy eating and 15 activities designed to make physical activity fun. Office for Children staff, along with interns from George Mason University’s graduate program in Nutrition and Food Studies, held workshops for providers to try the activities and conducted follow-up visits with providers. Between December 2013 and April 2015, 315 child care providers had attended “Eat and Run” workshops, and in follow-up surveys, many providers reported continuing to use the activities at least weekly. Staff have presented the program at several national conferences. In addition, as a result of the local outreach conducted to promote “Eat and Run,” in 2014, 65 child care providers joined the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which provides federal reimbursement for meals and snacks that meet nutritional guidelines served to eligible children and adults. “Eat and Run” won a 2015 VACo Achievement Award.
Jene Moore, Director of Community Education and Provider Services in the Office for Children, said that efforts are underway to revise the activity book for parents so that it can be distributed throughout the community. She attributed the program’s continued success to the way it makes nutrition and fitness fun activities that can be incorporated into everyday life, saying that although the program started small, “it can really have lasting effects” on community well-being.
Prince George County Farmer’s Market
Agriculture is Virginia’s top private industry by far, but sometimes smaller producers struggle to connect with consumers. Prince George County hosts a weekly farmers’ market on Saturdays from May through late October for producers located within a 200-mile radius of the County. In addition to helping local farmers, the market helps low-income residents afford fresh produce, meat, fish, and other essentials by accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits at the market (a machine converts benefits loaded onto a SNAP/EBT card into tokens that can be used like cash).
Fauquier Education Farm
Fauquier County’s partnership with a local nonprofit helps residents learn about agriculture and try their hands at farming small plots. The farm, which was created in 2010 and run almost entirely by volunteers, also grows produce for local food banks, donating more than 60,000 pounds in 2017. Read all about it in an article from the National Association of Counties, which is posted here.
- The Virginia Cooperative Extension Family Nutrition Program provides educational resources for eating well on a tight budget, including recipes. This map provides contact information for local Program Assistants.
- Feeding America’s mapping function allows you to type in a ZIP code to find the closest food bank.
- To find the nearest site serving summer meals through the Summer Food Service Program, text “FOOD” or “COMIDA” to 877-877.
- The SNAP program is administered through local Departments of Social Services; information on eligibility and program requirements is available at the Virginia Department of Social Services’ website. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which provides additional nutritional support for pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and young children, as well as counseling and referrals to other services, is administered by local health departments.