Former Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe was honored Thursday for her work to end childhood hunger at the launch of the First Lady’s Food Lab, a new program and facility at the University of Virginia’s Morven Farm.
“The unique thing that we are trying to create here at UVa is to look at food systems, not just growing food, but actually working on access,” McAuliffe said. “We have plenty of food, but there is a gap in the food system that denies access to the kids that need it most.”
Housed in a former barn, the Food Lab is a meeting space and kitchen that will support food justice initiatives at UVa and in the Charlottesville area.
University program partners include the School of Nursing, the Curry School of Education and Human Development, the Center for Global Health, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost and the Center for Cultural Landscapes.
Community partners include the City Schoolyard Garden initiative, the Charlottesville Food Justice Network, the International Rescue Committee and the Local Food Hub.
“It is important for us to build on individual connections we have made as UVa faculty to create institutional connections,” said Paul Freedman, an associate professor in UVa’s Department of Politics and a founding member of the UVa Food Collaborative.
Freedman said two UVa students will work with partner organizations at the Food Lab to support the Thomas Jefferson Health District’s new Food Equity Initiative. The Charlottesville City Council recently voted to support the initiative with $65,000.
In 2010, the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act eliminated the need for families to apply for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. McAuliffe and her husband, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, oversaw the General Assembly’s approval of nearly $5 million in funding over five years to support the expansion of school breakfast programs.
Virginia’s public schools now serve free breakfast to 60 percent of low-income students participating in free school lunch programs, according to Virginia Hunger Solutions.
“An additional 60,000 students are able to start the day with the nutrition they need to grow and learn,” said current Virginia first lady Pamela Northam. “That is a remarkable legacy [for Dorothy McAuliffe].”
Many Virginia families still struggle with food insecurity. According to the nonprofit Feeding America, about 18,000 people in Albemarle County and Charlottesville lacked reliable access to nutritious food in 2016, including more than 3,500 children.
“The resources for school meals already exist. It is just a matter of schools unlocking them,” Dorothy McAuliffe said. “The funding is there, but schools are leaving money on the table.”
The First Lady’s Food Lab will support outreach to Stone-Robinson Elementary School.
Fourth- and fifth-graders at the Albemarle school will grow vegetables in a greenhouse at Morven and at the school’s garden, and serve them in their cafeteria.
Elizabeth Shifflett, a teacher at Stone-Robinson, said her students will learn valuable lessons about responsibility and cooperation as they work toward their first harvest.
“It’s a real-world thing that they can apply in their lives,” Shifflett said.
“Food science is a fun and engaging gateway to chemistry, engineering and the life sciences,” Northam said. “As a former science teacher, I am so excited about these endless possibilities.”