Araceli Donahue’s goal for next summer is simple.
“I just want to feed more kids,” she said.
Immediately after the last meal of Fredericksburg City Public Schools’ 2019 summer feeding program had been served, Donahue was already thinking about how to feed even more kids next summer.
“We were standing on the bus on Aug. 2 [the last day of the summer feeding program] and Araceli says, ‘Next year, let’s try to get to the apartments on Lafayette Boulevard and Cowan Boulevard and let’s start at 11 a.m. instead of 11:30,’ ” said Brian Kiernan, food service director for FCPS. “She’s already planning next year. She has the patience and desire and insight.”
Kiernan put Donahue, a 13-year employee of FCPS who now manages the kitchen at James Monroe High School, in charge of the summer feeding program when it started in 2014.
This summer, she was one of a group of Virginians to be named to the 2019 No Kid Hungry Summer Hero Hall of Fame.
No Kid Hungry is a national campaign with the goal of ending childhood hunger. It is run by Share Our Strength, a nonprofit working to solve problems of hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world.
Twenty states were recognized in this year’s hall of fame, and Virginia had the most honorees, a total of 13.
One in seven children in Virginia live in families that struggle with hunger, according to No Kid Hungry. Research shows that hunger has long-term ramifications on children, including lower test scores, weaker attendance rates, and a higher risk of hospitalizations and chronic diseases.
At least 40 percent of enrolled families at four out of FCPS’s five schools—James Monroe High School is the only exception—are eligible for free and reduced meals under the National School Breakfast and Lunch program. This has allowed the division to obtain a grant, called the Community Eligibility Provision, that makes breakfast and lunch free for all enrolled students.
For families who rely on free meals at school to meet their children’s needs, summer can be hard.
Donahue, with Kiernan and with support from the city School Board and administrative staff, built FCPS’s summer feeding program and runs it out of the James Monroe kitchens each year.
She plans the menus and was instrumental in designing the two mobile food trucks that together visit eight sites each day, including the downtown library, the Doris Buffet pool, the Walker–Grant Center and apartment complexes on Fall Hill Avenue.
The program serves between 200 and 300 meals each day during the summer and has grown from serving 6,000 meals a season the first year to serving more than 30,000, Kiernan said.
Five or six items are offered with each meal, and there are always vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.
“And I’ve been able to turn it all over to her,” Kiernan said. “She’s the captain.”
“I’ve done all that?” Donahue asked.
“You’ve done all that,” Kiernan said.
“The other thing to remember,” Kiernan added, “is that she’s not contracted to work 12 months a year. Other 10-month employees choose to take the summers to garden or travel or work another job. She chose to work to build this program.”
For Donahue, it’s all about feeding the kids.
“It can be hard in the morning, prepping everything to go out on the trucks, but it’s worth it when we hear the kids shouting, ‘Yay, it’s pasghetti today!’” she said.
Donahue is proud of including fruits and vegetables with each meal and said she’s witnessed how kids who grow up with the summer feeding program from the time they are toddlers are primed to ask for fruits and vegetables with their meals.
“They grow with the food trucks during the summer and they want to see the fruits and vegetables when they get to school,” she said. “A grandma said to me, ‘My grandson asked for salad as part of his meal at home.’
“A child learned something from us,” she continued.
In her office, Donahue keeps handwritten notes, scrawled in pencil on notebook paper, from some of the kids served by the program this summer.
“Thank u for surving us,” one reads.
“Thank u, we love u,” says another.
“We come back very happy,” said Donahue.