By Elora Overbey, Grow Appalachia

Sullivan Foundation partner school Berea College has been spearheading an important effort to reduce childhood hunger in the Berea, Ky. area. Now it has received backing from the Cigna Foundation to work with local school systems and surrounding communities to help close nutrition gaps within and outside of the school environment.

Grow Appalachia, a strategic initiative of Berea College, has received a $30,000 grant from the Cigna Foundation as part of the grant program, Healthier Kids for Our Future. It’s a five-year, $25 million global initiative focused on improving the health and well-being of children made possible by Cigna and the Cigna Foundation.

Grow Appalachia’s Berea Kids Eat Program has worked directly in Berea since 2016 to fight childhood hunger, increase healthy food access and support community food resiliency. To date, the program has served more than 400,000 meals to youth while supporting health and wellness initiatives and food security programming for low-income communities.

“We’re really excited that Cigna has helped to fully braid together all the goals of Berea Kids Eat, which is not just about reducing food insecurity but also increasing healthy food access by building food skills at the household level for the future,” said Martina Leforce, coordinator of Berea Kids Eat.

Related: Berea College program serves thousands of free nutritious meals three days a week to children in need

Since its launch in 2019, Healthier Kids for Our Future has awarded more than $8 million in grants to nonprofit organizations working to reduce childhood hunger and improve youth mental health throughout the county. This program furthers Cigna’s commitment to addressing social determinants of health and eliminating barriers to care for all communities as part of its Building Equity and Equality Program.

Building on the strong foundation of existing community partnerships and strengths of local agencies, Berea Kids Eat has utilized funding from the Cigna Foundation to address food insecurity through four initiatives:

  • increasing healthy meal access to youth ages 18 and under
  • building household and community food resiliency
  • collecting and sharing best practices with partners
  • formalizing a community network committed to building local food security

Cherry tomatoes are bagged for distribution to families.

Since 2016, Berea Kids Eat has partnered with Berea Community School District to identify accessible summer meal sites in low-income neighborhoods. While BKE has established a mobile meals route to serve fresh meals directly in neighborhoods during the summer, these current and potential meal sites lack greenspace, weather protection, seating and handwashing facilities needed to effectively administer programming services.

Thanks to the support from Cigna, Berea Kids Eat and Berea Independent Schools have converted a retired school bus into the Berea Wellness Bus. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Berea Wellness Bus has been used weekly to transfer food directly from local vendors to area youth via meals and fresh food kits. When pandemic conditions allow, the bus visits low-income neighborhoods daily, to meet families where they are and serve fresh meals in a comfortable and engaging setting to youth ages 18 and under.

Moving forward, in partnership with Berea Community Schools, the bus will also serve as a distribution point for fresh produce, provide summer learning opportunities, serve as a mobile health screening clinic and offer enrichment programs to youth in low-income neighborhoods.

Related: Berry College partners with homeless shelter to train urban farmers

Berea Kids Eat aims to build long-term food resiliency with area youth through hands-on gardening, culinary experiences, and nutrition education. But many families experience barriers to opportunity access, including lack of available space or resources to grow food; limited knowledge or skills relating to culinary and garden practices; and time restrictions. To increase access, Berea Kids Eat is focusing on improving and expanding public gardens located at summer and afterschool meal locations such as the public library, public school and a local community garden situated in a low-income housing tract.

Funds will be used to construct culinary and pollinator demonstration gardens that incorporate youth programming with summer and afterschool meals. The pollination project is a part of the John Paul Mitchell Systems’ Peace, Love, and Butterflies Outdoor Education Center located at Glades Community Garden in Berea, Ky. Public education garden sites will serve as demonstration sites and venues for Berea Kids Eat to host best practices workshops designed for community outreach volunteers and institutional staff.

“We’re choosing to look at water and trees because we’re talking about long-term generational ecosystems… and also these perennial projects that are benefiting multiple generations and investing in projects that will have long-term benefits to the community,” Leforce said.

Berea Kids Eat packs garden kits for distribution to families facing food insecurity.

Funds will be used to support youth garden entrepreneurship at the local farmers market, provide garden-to-table cooking classes with summer meal service and after-school programming, and provide recipe cards with supplemental produce distributed with Weekend Backpack meals. These endeavors will allow kids to participate in hands-on activities that connect personal health and well-being with a fundamental understanding of nutrition and interest in healthy habits.

Berea Kids Eat will also use funds to provide hands-on garden and culinary workshops for partners committed to incorporating food and environmental education with classroom and out-of-school learning.

“The Healthier Kids for Our Future grant has allowed for us to look beyond just immediate hunger relief and incorporate nutrition programming into our meal service so that we’re not just looking at the immediate need, but also addressing future food skills with families,” Leforce said. “It’s not only provided us with an opportunity to dig a little bit deeper with the families we’re working with, but also to build a vision for a healthier Berea moving forward.”

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Berea College website.

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