Snow days can mean no food for many Kentucky students. One county solves that.

Children receive food packages for an after school dinner program

Children received their food packages for an after school dinner program in the Fairview Independent Schools district
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Children received their food packages for an after school dinner program in the Fairview Independent Schools district

When many public school systems in the state were closed for snow days Jan. 30 and 31, Letcher County Schools Food Service Director Nancy Banks opened West Whitesburg Elementary to provide food.

She decided to serve students free lunches on both days and free breakfast on Thursday in Whitesburg in southeastern Kentucky. The students’ families could eat for $3.50.

About 55 meals were served thanks to staff willing to work on snow days, said Banks.

“School meals are a big help to some students” and their families, she said, “I feel like we are taking steps to do what we can for the community,”

With one in five Kentucky children not having enough to eat at home, many school staffs in the state are taking steps to feed them beyond breakfast and lunch and beyond days when schools are open.

A few months ago, Fairview Independent Superintendent Jackie Risden-Smith found that an after-school dinner program made a difference for the hungry children in her community.

“Yesterday we started the after-school dinner program at our elementary,” Risden-Smith said in a tweet about the Ashland schools.

“While getting his food, a student smiled at his teacher and said, ‘We haven’t had a lot of food to eat at home ... now I won’t be hungry tonight.’ ”

In a separate situation in the Boyd County Kentucky school district, a school officer said a student participating in a “Shop with a Cop” program asked for food for Christmas instead of gifts.

“Child hunger is a real problem and we need more awareness,” tweeted Risden-Smith. ”People don’t like to talk about it.”

An after-school dinner program has been “a game changer for reducing childhood hunger in our community,” she said.

“Food insecurity among our youth is a basic need we must meet and although many are uncomfortable talking about this topic, we can’t afford to not talk about it and continue to bring about awareness,” said Risden-Smith.

“Hunger is a distraction to learning. We want to take that distraction away and because of our hard working staff in food service who now feed our students three meals daily, we are making it happen,” she said.

About 38,000 children in Kentucky are served daily in after-school supper programs, said Elizabeth Fiehler, child and adult care food program manager for the Kentucky Department of Education. While Kentucky is doing well in reaching hungry children, “we have a lot of room to grow,” she said.

At Family Resource Centers at several Fayette County schools, churches and school groups donate food that’s sent home with children for the weekend.

Nimbo Hammons, a Family Resource Center coordinator at Lexington’s Lansdowne Elementary, said he and the PTA made sure kids had extra food to take home for the recent snow days.

“We always try to find a way to send stuff home — little cans of ravioli, canned soups, bread, cereals, peanut butter and jelly — things that will at least get them through a few days until they can get back to school,” Hammons said.

School resource centers have partnerships with churches that provide bags of food for the weekend — often called a backpack program. Hammons said he partners with Porter Memorial Church, and Trinity Methodist Church and the PTA always helps. He also keeps food at the school that he can give out for families of children who have just enrolled at the school or who have an emergency.

Monica Hall, the Family Resource Center coordinator at Booker T. Washington Elementary in Lexington, also has a weekend food backpack program. She partners with Good Shepherd Episcopal Church and Henry Clay High School. A typical bag might have oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, cans of tuna and chicken, or soup and ravioli, and fruit. Between September and November, she also gets fresh fruit for the children from GleanKy.

Linda Prater, the coordinator at Arlington Elementary’s Family Resource Center said with the help of Southern Hills United Methodist Church, just about every child in the school is able to take home a weekend backpack of food.

One day when schools were not in session, she, her staff and volunteers made home visits to deliver food bags to children “so they wouldn’t be hungry.”

In another program, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles has unveiled a first of its kind initiative aimed at combating food insecurity with summer meals for Kentucky children. He said the Kentucky-grown Fruit and Vegetable Incentive Program, called K-VIP, creates an economic incentive for summer meal programs to buy fruit and vegetables produced in Kentucky by Kentucky growers.

“One in five Kentucky school children are food insecure,” Quarles said. “The K-VIP program gives summer feeding programs an added incentive to provide fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables for hungry kids in the summer months while expanding market access for Kentucky farmers.”