She survived on free meals. Now she's in charge of feeding hundreds of kids in Richmond.

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Posted at 11:28 AM, Jul 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-20 11:28:34-04

RICHMOND, Va. - This summer, thousands of children living in Richmond are relying on the city's free meal services. About 40% of students in Richmond Public Schools fall below the poverty line. Without free meal programs, some of those children might not know when or where they would get their next meal.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney proclaimed July 19 as "Summer Meals Day" for the city during lunch at a summer camp at Randolph Community Center Tuesday afternoon. The proclamation helped to highlight the city's efforts to combat summer food insecurity.

"Me and my brother depended on free and reduced lunch when we were in school, and we were grateful for the after-school programs that fed us as well," Stoney said, addressing several dozen students attending the summer camp.

The summer meal program, operated through the city's Parks and Recreation department, serves about 1,300 meals a day at about 30 different sites.

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"How can children be expected to learn when they're just plain hungry?" Stoney said. "We have to build the safety net for our children. And what we try to prevent each and every day is children falling through the cracks. That means children going home, children getting involved in crime. We want to create pathways for our children, and that's why it's very, very important that we focus on food insecurity, but also good programming around that as well. "

Raqiyah Waajid, who oversees the program, knows what it's like to benefit from summer meal programs.

"I've been running this program since 2016, but I also grew up with this program," Waajid said. "I went to our community center. I'm from Richmond. I know what it looks like."

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Of the more than 28,000 students in Richmond Public Schools, Waajid said 100% of them qualify for free meals.

Through a partnership with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, roughly $600,000 in federal money goes into making sure there's enough food to go around while students are not in school.

This year, however, Waajid said there were some uncertainties about where that food would come from.

"In the past, the city has issued a competitive bid. You put the bid out, and you're like, 'Okay, you're the lowest responsible bidder, we're going to pick you. Yay.' This year, we put it out twice, and we didn't get a bid," Waajid said. "That's the first time in the history of this program happening. So we found out roughly four weeks before this program starts and we're like, 'We have kids, we have to feed these children.'"

Waajid said city administration was with them every step of the way, making a commitment to make sure necessary resources and funding would be available. Program managers worked with businesses and restaurants for additional help.

In June, the Keep Kids Fed Act was signed, expanding options beyond summer camps to any child 18 years old or younger who needs a meal, no matter if they're enrolled in the program or not.

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"You don't have to sign up and pay or even sign up for a free program," Waajid said. "You just walk up and say, 'Hey, I would like a meal.' And you get a meal. No questions asked." 

Waajid and others in the city are encouraging families who need additional food assistance to text No Kid Hungry's summer hotline. Text FOOD or COMIDA to 304-304. 

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email to send a tip.