Organization working to end hunger

Published 10:46 pm Monday, February 23, 2009

A Norfolk couple’s search for a new home in 2004 led them to an unexpected ministry that ultimately has resulted in thousands of meals being served to children throughout the area, including Suffolk.

In 2004, Donyata and Christopher Washington were looking for a new house.

But as they took a closer look at the home in Norfolk they wanted to renovate, they saw a greater need to provide housing for the less fortunate in the community.

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“It was a mess,” Donyata Washington said. “It was Section 8 housing, and we looked around and said ‘Wow, we can’t do this.’”

Instead of renovating a dream home, the couple purchased five houses in a year to help house those in need.

“We prayed about it, and we pretty much just stepped out in faith,” Donyata said.

Little did Washington know that the decision to help a few others would lead to the ability to help tens of thousands.

Over the course of the next few years, a new passion would be brought to the Washington family.

Their daughter, Christina, was active in many recreational sports and activities. Many times, the family that some children in the league did not have snacks during a game’s break or intermission. Sometimes these children would even fight over food purchased at the refreshment stands.

“They weren’t bad kids, they were jealous,” Donyata said.

It was an example, or a symptom, of a much larger problem: child hunger.

It became a passion project for Donyata.

Christopher, then a professor at Norfolk State University, began looking for grants that would allow an operation to feed hungry children in the area. Donyata made contacts throughout Norfolk and was immediately encouraged by First Baptist Church in Norfolk, which allowed Donyata to use its kitchen facilities to make and distribute the food.

Christopher found a grant that would fund the entire operation. The only problem was the grant was a reimbursable one, meaning the Washingtons would have to front the money first and then get paid back.

“I had to think of a way to get the money,” Donyata said.

The answer was in the houses.

They sold their properties and used the money to start Virginia Kids Eat Free.

“If we hadn’t made that decision to buy those houses, we wouldn’t have had the ability to sell the houses to fund the grants,” she said.

The organization was set up to provide meals to during the summer to children who qualified for free lunches during the school year. Through the help of community sites, meals are prepared for children during the week.

“We need to track these children,” Donyata said. “We need to know these children are getting fed.”

That was in 2006.

That year the organization had five different sites, including First Baptist Church, operating with volunteers to provide more than 15,000 meals to children throughout the Tidewater area.

“Then, it just got crazy,” Donyata said with a laugh.

By the next year, word of mouth had spread so much that the number of volunteer sites went from 5 to 29. The organization helped provide 74,000 meals to children.

Last year, it expanded even more, providing more than 287,000 meals for children across the state. The demand grew so large, running it has become a full-time job for both Donyata and Christopher.

Here in Suffolk, there are two sites that work with Virginia Kids Eat Free – Tabernacle Christian Church and New Life Church.

As the organization begins to launch its fourth summer season, Donyata said, the need for more sites and more volunteers is in full swing. Each site requires about 30 volunteers to make the program work well.

“We need more sites,” Donyata said. Last year, all 1,800 organizations under the USDA umbrella fed 20 percent of all the eligible children in the state. “We have a long way to go. It’s going to be a long process.”

For more information on how to help, visit or call 652-9942.