Giles County Free Food

Photo by Emily Rice

Giles County School District offers free lunches and activities to children every summer through their free summer food program.

NARROWS – Giles County free summer food program provides meals most every day for children regardless of income at Narrows High School, Pearisburg Town Pool and the Pearisburg Town Library. The food is a vital part of the program, but it is just the beginning.

This is the seventh year of the program’s existence, but the 10th year of the school district’s efforts to better educate and feed their students.

According to Christy Lawson, Food Service Supervisor of Giles County Public Schools, a decade ago, the board of supervisors and the school board decided they wanted to come up with something unique for the county. They wanted to look to the past farming community of Giles County to improve the future.

Giles County schools started an agriculture lab, a CTE program run through the technology center that is offered at both Narrows and Giles High Schools. They raise cattle and crops.

“It teaches kids how to farm, they see it from beginning to end, they do everything with it, they even watch the butchering process if they want to,” Lawson said. “The school nutrition reaps the benefit of it, and of course, the kids do too. The kids grow it, they watch it process and they eat and it so it is a really cool process and it has helped the school nutrition program.”

In fact, the program has seen so much success that they were recently awarded “The Turnip the Beet Award.” The award recognizes outstanding summer meal program sponsors across the nation who work hard to offer high-quality meals to children that are appetizing, appealing, and nutritious during the summer months.

Giles County Schools were one of two school districts in Virginia and 118 in the United States to receive the award.

In its seventh year, the program continues to grow. According to statistics provided by Lawson, with only 32 of the 44 days of the program completed so far this year, the summer food program 66,122 meals. The grand total in 2018 was 20,458. The program is completely run by volunteers with ACE volunteers running the kitchen.

“Every year, we have grown. We still have nine more days and we have already exceeded every other year. It is so amazing and you will see why in a few minutes,” Lawson said just before the doors opened at 11:30 a.m.

Children up to 18 years old eat for free at the program. Adults eat for $2.50 each with an extra dollar if they would like to take out their food. Lawson said that in the beginning of the program she decided to add the adult option to make the program more accessible to the caregivers of the kids she was serving.

“It has just been amazing. I was afraid that kids would not come, so I thought, ‘let’s offer the meal to their parents, grandparents or babysitters,’ whoever has these kids and that way they will be more inclined to bring their kid to the program,” Lawson said.

In addition, the Giles County School District runs buses to go and get the kids and adults for free. They just have to sign up for the service.

“I have noticed too if the parents, grandparents or babysitters bring the kids, they eat with their kids, instead of in front of the television, or playing video games, or on their cell phones, it has just been amazing to watch that,” Lawson said.

The meal on Thursday, August 1, 2019 was hot dogs on homemade buns. According to all the volunteers, hot dog day is usually their most popular day.

Elwood Lambert sat at a table, eating with his granddaughter, Meya Merrix. He said he has been bringing both of his granddaughters since the beginning of the program.

“I like to bring my grandkids in because during the summertime they don’t get to see a lot of their friends and there is not a lot of stuff they like to eat but they know what is here and there are days like hot dog days and hamburger days,” Lambert said. “We come here and it doesn’t cost anything and get to see all the kids that may or may not have lunch. They get to eat lunch and it is free that is the better part of it.”

Marion Ballard, Western District Representative and Chairman of the Giles County School Board always attends on Thursdays for hot dog day.

“This program already has changed the community. You can see what they get here and these kids, it amazes me, they show up for that extra stuff as much as they do for the food,” Ballard said. “I didn’t realize until I came on the school board how many of these kids struggle with where their food is coming from.”

School board member-at-large (representing the entirety of Giles County), Melissa Guynn brought her daughter, mother-in-law, grandson and nephew to Thursday’s meal.

“We are fortunate enough to serve the people because this is a very tight-knit community as you can tell,” Guynn said.”The kids love it and the people that come here and volunteer. No one else in Virginia does something like this. I always say, when we do something, we do it right.”

The kids have to finish their food first, and then they get to participate in more activities provided by the Giles Early Education Project (GEEP) and once a week, Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Virginia Cooperative Extension offers lessons in exercise and nutrition to the children. “We kind of cover it all, we like to reach out to the community, schools, we do physical fitness. I have things set up in the hallways that are physical fitness and dancing and different thing,” Gigi Robertson of the family nutrition program of the Virginia Cooperative Extension said. “I do most of my outreach in the schools and it is a hands-on program that teaches children to take what they have and take the nutrition part of it and make snacks and fix things for themselves or they can encourage their families to pick out food that is nutritional.”

In addition to the Virginia Cooperative Extension, GEEP provides art projects, books and games after the meal.

“Our goal is to make their summer really special and not that they are just sitting at home watching television and playing video games,” Lynn Hill, one of the founding members of GEEP said. “They come here and we try to give arts which is therapeutic for a lot of those kiddos. A lot of literacy experiences because sometimes they lose some understanding over the summer and lots of love.”

Hill has an emotional bond with the children in the program, that Lawson was quick to point out. “The thing I have seen is that the kids will talk, especially to Lynn,” Lawson said. “If they have a problem they feel so comfortable coming to her and talking. She takes care of them not just in here but outside. It has grown to a year-round relationship.”

In fact, in the middle of the interview two very excited little girls ran up, yelling for “Miss Lynn.” Their faces lit up as she turned around for a hug. The child skipped up to Lynn and gives her a big hug, ready to show the small new notebook, written in impressively legible children’s handwriting “My Book.” Lynn Hill encouraged the girls to go get their hot dogs and that she can’t wait to read the book.

“The program is enormous, so art is enormous. It has always filled the walls, but we still have several weeks to go and I am running out of room to hang it on the walls,” Hill said. “They get to eat and that is a really good thing. Sometimes they come and they haven’t eaten since lunch the day before. I think the emotional bond is maybe the most important thing.”

Hill said that GEEP tries to give the students new experience every day, to put their hands on new materials every day. “GEEP works in a lot of different areas and a lot of our mission is to make sure that teachers and young children have support so that the programs are all high quality,” Hill said.

Karen Yolton, another founding member of GEEP said that the combination of the free lunches and GEEP’s program is the brainchild of Christy Lawson and Lynn Hill.

“She (Lynn) is the mastermind of this classroom,” Yolton said. “Christy Lawson is the food service manager for the county and she is the one that has been working with the USDA because the program is based on a USDA grant. We have so many children on free or reduced lunch so we qualified for the grant and she has been able to keep this going for seven years, to feed children because during the school year they have school lunches, but in the summertime, they do not have lunch and that became a real need.”

When the doors open at 11:30 a.m., the room is filled with hugs, laughter and smells of great food. Soon, the people gather in their groups, adults chatting with one another while the children flock to the back of the room for their arts and crafts, or out to the hall to dance and play with Gigi Robertson. This community has come together for the betterment of its children and Christy Lawson hit the nail on the head when she described the program as “one big family picnic.”

— Contact Emily Rice at erice@bdtonline.com

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