Stafford County, with a population 145,000, ranks 15th in the state in terms of per capita income (there are 134 counties and cities in Virginia), and nationally comes in at 19th in median income. These are two indicators that imply a thriving and healthy economic picture. Certainly not one where there would be a serious food insecurity problem.
However, on the edges of these economic indicators, there is a large part of our population that worries about where its next meal is coming from.
Perhaps one of the most telling indicators, the “canary in the coal mine” if you will, are the number of children in the Stafford school system who receive free and reduced breakfast and lunch assistance. Its grown substantially over the years. These numbers indicate a far more pervasive hunger problem in the county than most people realize. Or care to acknowledge.
Stafford County Schools has an enrollment of 31,722 students. Out of this population 11,761 children, some 37.63%, qualify for free breakfasts and lunches and another 1,123 children, for reduced prices on their meals. That’s a staggering statistic. It means that a total of 41% of our student population come from homes where food insecurity is a major issue in the household.
These determinations of eligibility for free and reduced meals are made based on the size of the household the child comes from and the family’s income.
But the problem gets worse as you drill deeper and look at individual schools and pockets within the county where poverty and food insecurity is more pervasive.
At some individual schools the problem is almost at a crisis level. Over one half of Drew Middle School’s student body qualify for free and reduced lunches, while three quarters of the children at Widewater and Rocky Run Elementary Schools meet the criteria for the program.
These schools, as well as Kate Waller Barrett, A.E. Moncure, Falmouth, and Anthony Burns Elementary Schools, also met the requirements for what’s called the Community Eligibility Program. This program, established under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, designates certain schools, based on various local economic factors, as being pockets of high poverty. Yes, right here in Stafford County. Accordingly, this makes every student at the school eligible for free and reduced breakfasts and lunches.
Other schools don’t qualify for the community eligibility criteria, but they come close. 56% of Shirley Heim Elementary’s students receive free and reduced lunch program benefits, while 47% of Stafford Middle School students do, and Conway Elementary comes in at 44%.
Food insecurity, namely worrying about where your next meal is coming from, is a pervasive problem in the county. And these statistics indicate that it is impacting thousands of families in the Stafford community.
The surprising thing is that during the last election cycle it was hardly ever mentioned. Transportation, development, and abortion topped the list of issues in the 2023 county elections, but there seemed to be little if any discussion about our fellow citizens who can’t feed their children adequately.
The standout exception was Ben Litchfield, a Democrat who unsuccessfully sought his party’s nomination in the 27th district. His campaign stressed concerns about poverty in our region and specifically food insecurity.
With so many people in this community dealing with serious problems of food insecurity, someone might say that we don’t have our priorities straight.
by David S. Kerr
GUEST OPINION WRITER