A sea of 150 elementary and middle school students from Austin and Waco met on the steps of the Capitol today to sing, cheer and kick off the Texas No Kid Hungry Campaign.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and a diverse group of corporate, education, nonprofit and government leaders spoke to the students and other attendees about a new partnership aimed to end childhood hunger by utilizing existing nutritional programs and launching a breakfast pilot program in 10 districts across the state.
“We’ve got more food than we need. A food shortage is not the issue. But we have a problem with food reaching kids who are in need,” Staples said. “We’re calling on all of Texas to step up and join us to make certain that no kid goes hungry.”
The Texas No Kid Hungry Campaign is a public-private partnership with the Texas Hunger Initiative, which is a project of Baylor University’s School of Social Work and the national children’s hunger organization Share Our Strength, which is providing $230,000 for the first year of the project. The initiative is also receiving support from Wal-Mart and from Maximus, a health and human services contractor. The Texas campaign is part of Share Our Strength’s national No Kid Hungry Campaign.
The purpose of the campaign is to end food insecurity in children by 2015. Food insecurity is when a person consistently faces hunger or lives in fear of starvation.
“Texas has one of the highest food insecurity rates in the nation, and that’s something we can’t be proud of,” said Bill Ludwig, the southwest regional administrator for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service. “A hungry child has absentee problems, a hungry child has severe behavior problems, and simply put, a hungry child cannot learn.” Ludwig said that more than 1.8 million children in Texas are at risk of hunger.
The partnership’s focus during its first year is to connect more eligible low-income children to federally funded school breakfasts and summer meals. Of the more than 2.4 million students in the state who get a free or reduced-price lunch at school, fewer than 1.4 million participate in the School Breakfast Program.
Texas Hunger Initiative Director Jeremy Everett said there are a couple reasons for low participation in school breakfasts. “For one, many kids don’t get to school early, so they don’t get a chance to eat,” he said. “And also, in mixed income schools, there’s a social stigma attached — if you are the only kid eating in the cafeteria in the morning, everyone’s going to know you have a lower income.”
Everett said that under the breakfast-in-the-classroom initiative, all kids have an option to eat in the classroom for free, regardless of income, and this breaks down the social stigma. “We anticipate it will increase breakfast participation by 100,000 kids a day throughout the year. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
According to Everett, school districts in El Paso, Dallas, Connolly, Waco and Lufkin have already signed on to be part of the pilot program, and five more districts are expected to join.
The partnership will also work to help certain children receive regular, nutritious meals when school lets out for the summer. According the to campaign’s press release, only 9 percent of Texas kids who currently get a free or reduced-price school lunch also get a free summer meal. The Texas No Kid Hungry campaign is working on ways to get churches and local non-profit groups involved in distributing these meals to more children.
“It’s one thing to give kids a healthy meal, but teaching them about nutrition goes a long way,” said Share Our Strength Chairman and CEO Bill Shore. Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters program is a nutrition education program that works with families who are on food assistance to teach them about food budgeting and healthy ways to cook for kids.
Shore said the main issue the campaign faces is being able to connect students with the program. “That’s kind of the irony of this era. Everyone’s talking about budget cuts and so forth, but we’ve actually got funds with bipartisan support for programs like school lunches and breakfasts,” Shore said. “We just need to get kids to utilize what’s already out there.”
Texas is a challenging state to tackle because of its size, according to Shore. “It’s just the numbers here are so large. And of course the state is so spread out. But here, you’ve got the will to come together to solve this problem. I think in a lot of ways Texas can be an example for the rest of the country,” he said.