By Sheila S. Umberger

Umberger has been the director of Roanoke Public Libraries since 2004, and leads the Star City Reads initiative. The American Library Association recognized Sheila in 2016 with the Peggy Sullivan Award for Public Library Administrators Supporting Services to Children. In 2018, she received the Citizen of the Year Humanitarian Award from the Roanoke Branch of the NAACP.

In Roanoke, one in three children live in poverty. There are many factors that contribute to the struggle families in poverty face, especially to feed their children. But thanks to the free meals served at Roanoke Public Libraries through a program called Feed and Read, one of those factors is changing.

Since 2012, the City of Roanoke has participated in the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading with an initiative called Star City Reads. In the process of learning how to ensure that all children are competent readers, we realized just how many factors impact a child’s ability to learn, including their health. To quote former First Lady of Virginia Dorothy McAuliffe, “A hungry child cannot learn.”

In 2014, librarians at Roanoke Public Libraries began noticing that during breaks from school, children were staying at library branches all day without eating meals. It was an eye-opening realization that children right here, in our own Roanoke neighborhoods, did not have access to healthy meals on a daily basis. Libraries have become the center of community activities and an important resource for citizens. As an institution whose mission is engage, educate, empower, knowing health and hunger impact learning meant we couldn’t just sit by and watch our kids go without food. And so, Feed and Read began. A natural extension of libraries as learning centers, the program focuses on nutrition and reading to provide a more holistic approach to meeting children’s needs.

During the summer of 2014, the City piloted a program at the Gainsboro Branch Library in which children were served free meals and participated in literacy activities while they ate. Today, Feed and Read has evolved to a year-round program that includes afternoon meals six days a week during the school year, and lunches and snacks during the summer break.

Since the program began, Roanoke Public Libraries, in partnership with Feeding America Southwest Virginia, has served more than 57,000 meals to children, offering nutritious alternatives. That’s 57,000 times that a child had something healthy to eat. That’s 57,000 times children’s brains and bodies have been nourished. Third grade reading levels are rising now, very likely in part because children have access to nutritious meals.

To continue to address this issue, founding partner of Star City Reads, the Roanoke City Public Schools (RCPS), received a special Community Eligibility Provision from the Commonwealth in 2016 that allows all children at most RCPS schools to receive free meals. This not only boosts children’s nutrition, but their brains.

We serve our children best when we all work together. The partnership between Feeding America Southwest Virginia and Roanoke Public Libraries enables thousands of children to receive meals each year. Over the summer, the YMCA of Virginia’s Blue Ridge bolsters the “read” element of Feed and Read by recruiting volunteers to read to and conduct literacy activities with children while they eat. Community organizations also make presentations on a variety of topics to families who attend Feed and Read. And, the support of Mayor Sherman Lea, City Council, and the City Manager’s Office has been crucial to our success.

This month, the City of Roanoke was named the first-ever All-America Hall of Fame City by the National Civic League. This award was created “to recognize an outstanding civic engagement initiative in the community since winning the All-America City Award.” Roanoke received this honor for the Feed and Read program, which began as a direct result of the Star City Reads work and the City’s 2012 and 2017 All-America City Awards.

This recognition doesn’t mean that we’ve solved the problem; it just means we have found a way to impact it. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that every child receives the support they need to succeed in school and beyond. The Hall of Fame Award is a call to action. We are doing extraordinary work, but there is more to be done. We hope that one day programs like Feed and Read will no longer be necessary because every child will be able to thrive in mind, body, and spirit.

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