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Schools, nonprofits hustle to feed over a half million Virginia students: ‘It’s incredible’

Richmond school bus driver Tyrone McBride is still driving a big, yellow bus through Richmond neighborhoods, but these days, he’s transporting boxes of food for kids in need. More than a week has passed since Gov. Ralph Northam announced students will not return to school this academic year, and volunteers are still fighting to feed the 590,000 children in Virginia with free or reduced lunches who were ordered to remain home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Capital News Service

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By Hannah Eason

Richmond school bus driver Tyrone McBride is still driving a big, yellow bus through Richmond neighborhoods, but these days, he’s transporting boxes of food for kids in need.

“It gets me out of the house,” said McBride, who has been a school bus driver for 18 years, “and you know, you’re doing a great deed and helping people out.”

More than a week has passed since Gov. Ralph Northam announced students will not return to school this academic year, and volunteers are still working to feed the 590,000 children in Virginia eligible for free or reduced lunches who were ordered to remain home during the coronavirus pandemic. Schools have been closed since March 16, though students were originally slated to return by March 27.

Whitcomb Court resident Simone Sanders said her children are now eating at home during the day, but she didn’t receive an increase in food stamps. One child is disabled, which prevents Sanders from being able to work.

“It’s affecting us bad, especially in the projects, and there’s nothing for the kids to do all day,” Sanders said. “And then you have to worry about your child just being outside getting shot.”

Sanders said she’s grateful for the food from Richmond Public Schools, and says she occasionally gives food to neighborhood kids who say they’re hungry.

The Richmond Public Schools meal distribution program, like others around the state, continues to evolve during the coronavirus pandemic that caused a surge of Virginians to file for unemployment. Almost 46,300 Virginians filed for unemployment between March 15 and March 21. The previous week 2,706 people filed an unemployment claim, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.

The program started with 10 school sites, and has since grown into at least 43 sites throughout the community and 10 school sites.

Erin Stanley, director of family engagement at Richmond Public Schools, said volunteers, bus drivers and the district’s nutrition staff have made the efforts possible. Volunteers were using personal vehicles to drop off food, but RPS decided that school buses would better suit the cause.

“We did that for a couple of reasons,” Stanley said. “One, so we can get more food out, and two, because school buses are a bit more well known and probably more trusted than individual volunteers going in with their personal vehicles.”

Plastic bags filled with milk cartons, sandwiches, apples and snacks are handed out in neighborhoods found on the Richmond Public Schools’ website. School distribution sites are open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and neighborhood times vary by location. Any student in the school district can use the program, Stanley said.

Volunteer Natalie Newfield said many families she gave meals to lost jobs in the restaurant industry.

 “They’re changing the way they do deliveries, which is amazing,” Newfield said. “Every day you give them a count. If they need more food, the next day, all of a sudden your bus has more food. It’s incredible.”

Statewide efforts to feed children in Virginia

When schools closed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture activated the Summer Meals Program, which funds public schools and local organizations to serve breakfast and lunch during the summer.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, pressed the USDA to change its policy which required parents to have their child with them when picking up food.

Roem said it was difficult for a Prince William County mother to access food for her two children. Her daughter has an immune system deficiency caused by recent cancer treatments, making her susceptible to the COVID-19 virus.

“When you’re talking about a 7-year-old with cancer, we have to really evaluate what is it that our policy is trying to prevent that is more important than feeding a child with cancer,” Roem said.

Roem said she was able to bring groceries to the family, who live in the representative’s district. As they carried bags of food inside, Roem said the mother told her children, “We’re eating tonight.”

“I fought with the USDA for a full week and won a major, major victory for kids throughout Virginia and across the country, and especially immunocompromised kids, to make sure that they stay safe, that they stay home,” Roem said.

The USDA waived the restriction last week, and states can now choose to waive the in-person policy for students to receive food.

No Kid Hungry, a national campaign launched by nonprofit Share Our Strength, is offering emergency grants to local school divisions and organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The grants can help people who are trying to make meal distribution possible, but may lack the equipment necessary to feed children outside of a school setting.

Sarah Steely, senior program manager at No Kid Hungry Virginia, said the grants can fund necessities like vehicles, gas, coolers and equipment to keep food safe during distribution.

“Those might not be resources that folks already have, because those aren’t service models that were expected of them before,” Steely said, “so we’re here to support community organizations and school divisions as they figure out what it is they need to distribute to kids.”

The organization works with YMCAs, childcare centers, libraries and all 133 of Virginia’s public school divisions.

The organization recently activated their texting hotline for those unsure of where their next meal is coming from: text “FOOD” to 877-877. The hotline is generally used during the summer months, but was reactivated to combat food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic.

Steely called the hotline “a tool in a bigger toolbox of resources” and encouraged families to contact their local school board for updated information about their locality.

“They count on that as a primary source of nutrition, so with schools closed, we want to make sure that the students who are accessing meals at school are now accessing those meals at home,” Steely said.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Plow Through Your Holiday Shopping at Holiday Villages a Virtual Market

Let’s spread some holiday cheer and support Richmond’s small business and artist community at a new VIRTUAL Holiday Villages!

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Saturday, December 5th and Sunday, December 6th from 4pm-8pm you’ll be able to shop a bunch of local vendors. Everything from ice cream to tee shirts. Head over to Facebook to see all the vendors profiled. Normally the Richmond Night Market welcomes you in person but these are not normal times.  You can register to check it out online here. It’s a great way to support local businesses and stay safe.
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Grab your family, friends, loved ones, and curl up on the sofa to shop and hang with us!
Finish all your holiday shopping the first weekend of December!
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Presented by the Richmond Night Market, in partnership with The City of Richmond, Brok Productions, and The Economic Development Authority of Richmond.
Let’s spread some holiday cheer and support Richmond’s small business and artist community at our new VIRTUAL Holiday Villages!
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RVA Illuminates and Holiday Lights on the Riverfront Throw the Switch on Friday

It’s about to get a lot brighter downtown.

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In the past when downtown lit up for the holidays it was a big event downtown. Due to Covid-19 that big event is not happening. The main event RVA Illuminates is going virtual and can be seen on ABC 8 News this Friday with performances and music.

Venture Richmond is hosting its own event, Holiday Lights on the Riverfront on Brown’s Island and along the Canal Walk to Brown’s Island from 6-8 PM on Friday.

​When downtown RVA lights up for the holiday season, Brown’s Island and the Turning Basin on the Canal Walk will join in the cheer and help the City of Richmond kick off the season with Holiday Lights on the Riverfront, a display of decorative lights that is open and FREE to the public! Enjoy vendors Espresso-A-Go-Go and Curbside Creations and family entertainer Jonathan the Juggler on Brown’s Island or take a festive stroll along the Canal Walk to the Turning Basin. Presented by Venture Richmond. Please practice safe social distancing. Parking is available at the American Civil War Museum ($), Belle Isle parking lot, and on-street parking along 2nd and 5th Streets.

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Virginia Opera Cancels Main Stage Performances for the 2020-2021 Season

VO General Director and CEO Peggy Kriha Dye: “Taking into consideration the serious circumstances surrounding the pandemic, we regrettably acknowledge the impossibility of producing our 2020-2021 Season.”

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Today, Virginia Opera, The Official Opera Company of the Commonwealth of Virginia, announces cancellation of all scheduled 2020–2021 Season productions due to the public safety concerns caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The determination follows a complete VO staff and Board review affecting statewide presentations in the Hampton Roads, Central Virginia, and Northern Virginia markets scheduled to begin February 2021.

VO General Director and CEO Peggy Kriha Dye: “Taking into consideration the serious circumstances surrounding the pandemic, we regrettably acknowledge the impossibility of producing our 2020-2021 Season. Our dedication to following the necessary guidelines to ensure the safety of our patrons and artists overwhelms our immense desire to perform. In the coming months we will chart our path for the 2021-2022 Season and beyond, while doing all we can to stay connected to the communities we serve; digitally in the schools, virtually for everyone, and in safe environments.“

Virginia Opera Artistic Director, Adam Turner: “The performing arts have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. In the short-term we have compensated those artists affected by the season cancellation to the best of our ability. We now turn to providing new opportunities for much-needed work in our industry. This includes building on the success of our fall artist “Stayin’ Alive” residency, with a second initiative geared towards providing more outdoor performances and digital content beginning in spring 2021. We were able to reach a whole new audience this fall by taking opera out of the Opera House and to the streets, opening a door to this incredible art form for so many new faces, and we look forward to serving our communities again as soon as possible.”

Season ticketholders are already being contacted to address the disposition of their tickets with options that include early renewal for the 2021-2022 Season, the conversion of the fair value of the tickets to a donation in support of the VO, and a full-value refund of Season ticket purchases.

“Stayin’ Alive” – Virginia Opera’s Alternate Fall artist residency included multiple digital performance and artist-driven content to be shared by the VO throughout the coming winter months. Additional online programs will also be forthcoming and information and schedules on all will be updated at Virginia Opera’s website – vaopera.org, as well as on the company’s Social Media channels.

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