Roanoke named All-America City Hall of Fame winner

Downtown Roanoke Skyline

The National Civic League is excited to announce that the City of Roanoke is the first ever All-America City, Hall of Fame Winner. Roanoke has a long history with the All-America City Award, receiving recognition for a record 7 times!

Roanoke is being recognized as this year’s Hall of Fame winner for the continued work and advancement of the Star City Reads initiative—initially included in the city’s 2012 winning All-America City application. The Star City Reads (SCR) initiative works to ensure that all children can read proficiently by the end of third grade.

Today, SCR consists of a coalition of over 30 community partners, led by the Roanoke Public Libraries (RPL). Each partner organization supplements the work it already does, whether conducting home visitation, providing social services, or running theatre programs, with efforts that support early childhood literacy. The community’s progress includes an over 10% increase in reading proficiency rates for low-income third graders.

Since winning the 2012 All-America City Award and engaging in work to increase early educational outcomes for low-income children, Roanoke has become increasingly aware of the obstacles children and families in poverty face. The community has learned that reading success isn’t simply about what happens in school; rather, a child’s struggles or success in school are directly related to their home life, and to the resources and supports to which they may or may not have access. Factors like health, hunger, and transportation directly impact a child’s ability to enter kindergarten ready to learn, to attend school every day, to retain what they’ve learned, and to meet key benchmarks that have future ramifications.

After Roanoke won the 2012 All-America City Award, city librarians began observing that children were coming into the libraries during the day during the summer break and were staying in the library all day without eating. Around the same time, Roanoke learned that hunger contributes to the summer learning slide, or the loss of knowledge learned over the previous school year.

RPL staff met with local partners to discuss this barrier to success and developed a shared vision to ensure that all children receive nutritious meals during the summer break. In the summer of 2014, in collaboration with the Roanoke City Public Schools and the local YMCA, the first Feed and Read program was piloted at the Gainsboro Library. During Feed and Read, any child birth to eighteen receives a free, USDA-approved lunch and participates in literacy enrichment activities. Combining healthy food with an educational experience helps prevent the summer learning slide, or loss of learning that can happen over the summer, in two ways. Increased nutrition supports healthy brain development and knowledge retention, while enrichment opportunities help young brains stay active and grow. Learning experiences offered during Feed and Read include story times, word games, presentations on health and careers, performances by the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, and more. Feed and Read is made possible by federal funding.

With community input, Feed and Read was expanded in 2015 to serve each of the six Roanoke Public Library branches over six weeks of the summer vacation. Meals were prepared at Roanoke City Public Schools cafeterias, while the YMCA recruited volunteers from the community to serve the meals and lead literacy activities. That summer, over 4,100 meals were served. Over subsequent years, Feed and Read expanded to Parks and Recreation facilities, including public pools.

Feed and Read is focused on equity. Providing meals to children who would not otherwise get them helps ensure that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or family background, have healthy meals. The program is open to any child under eighteen who attends, regardless of where they live.

In 2018, Feeding America Southwest Virginia joined as the feeding partner, and the YMCA began focusing on volunteer recruitment. That same summer, based on observations and community input, Feed and Read expanded to include both lunch and, depending on the location, either breakfast or after-school snack service. Over the summer of 2018, over 10,000 meals were served.

Since 2012, the community’s have been opened to the fact that certain neighborhoods of the city are racially and socioeconomically segregated. In particular, the Southeast and Northwest quadrants of the city have higher rates of poverty—and worse health and educational outcomes—than other parts of the city. Because they have become more aware of the data and more finely attuned to recognizing challenges children face, library staff at the Belmont and Melrose libraries, which are located in Southeast and Northwest, respectively, became aware that many children were coming to the library after school, staying until close, and not eating anything until breakfast at school the next morning. This awareness led Feeding America Southwest Virginia and the Roanoke Public Libraries to expand Feed and Read once again to offer meals after school Mondays through Fridays and on Saturdays.

During the first three months of this Feed and Read expansion, from October 1, 2018 to December 31, 2018, another 10,000 meals were served. Since Feed and Read was first piloted nearly five years ago, over 37,000 meals have been served to children birth through eighteen in the City of Roanoke.

In terms of meals fed, Feed and Read has had a significant impact on the City of Roanoke. Over 37,000 meals have been given to children who would otherwise go without this crucial nutrition. Feed and Read’s impact goes beyond food service statistics, however. It is true that because work resulting from the 2012 All-America Award led to an increased awareness of the realities of poverty in the community, more children are being fed. It is likely that many of these children are experiencing healthier physical, emotional, and academic development as a result of increased nutrition during the summer and, since October 2018, outside of school. But what is most important is that more City of Roanoke residents are aware of truths that have long since gone unacknowledged: that many citizens struggle in profound and fundamental ways, and that these challenges impact every aspect of children’s lives. Feed and Read has begun a conversation around the realities of poverty, and of how significantly a lack of access to healthy food has immediate and long-term impacts on children.