In the heart of North Richland Hills, hungry children are welcome.
Signs urge them to eat: “No Cost Summer MEALS” and “KIDS EAT HERE FREE.”
Volunteers serve warm and cold food inside a small conference center at an apartment complex that serves as home for families that have struggled with poverty, homelessness or abuse.
“Our biggest wish — our intention — is to make sure these children have a healthy, nutritious meal every day,” said Angie Akmakjian, volunteer coordinator for Community Enrichment Center, a North Richland Hills-based non-profit that helps lift families from poverty.
About 35 children attend the North Richland Hills summer enrichment program. They are a cheery, wiggly group of mostly elementary and middle school students, who practice reading, writing, math and science while getting food they might otherwise not have. They are also among an estimated 51,000 children the Tarrant Area Food Bank expects to feed this summer at 44 summer food sites.
Tarrant County has a child hunger problem, experts said. An estimated 26 percent of Tarrant County children, or 130,880, were listed as hungry, according to State of Texas Children 2016 report by the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Every week, the Tarrant Area Food Bank provides access to about 500,000 to families in Tarrant County and 12 surrounding counties.
People in an estimated 1.4 million households in Texas are hungry, according to the Food Research & Action Center.
Area non-profits, schools and churches help year round, but the issue grows crucial in the summer when families can’t access free-and-reduced food programs they rely on during the school year. When summer starts, school districts offer meals for several weeks, but when the programs end, families have to look elsewhere for food until the new school year begins.
“A lot of people don’t understand why hunger is such an issue during the summer,” said Anita Foster, spokeswoman for the Tarrant Area Food Bank. She said there are about 184,000 children in need of meals in the region served by the food bank.
Experts said struggling families sometimes have to choose between working and leaving children at home by themselves. When they are left alone, children sometimes don’t eat.
Cynthia Oliver, president/director of Covered In Faith Ministries, said they partner with the Texas Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help feed hungry children in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. During the summer, she estimates they feed between 800 and 900 children a day at eight apartment complexes in the Fort Worth area and Clyde Pittman Park in Everman.
“If their parents don’t bring them, they won’t eat,” Oliver said. “We have a lot of people drive up, the kids will eat and they will leave.”
In Everman, families get fresh food at an outdoor pantry once a month. The mobile pantry, which had been parked near Johnson Park, is moving nearby to the parking lot of a new supermarket located at 1829 Everman Parkway. The resource, which started three years ago, is a collaboration among the school district, Everman United Methodist Church, the city of Everman and the Tarrant Area Food Bank.
“They don’t have to show an ID. It’s free,” said James King, director of truancy and safety compliance at Everman schools. He also helps make sure the mobile pantry serves the public every month.
The outdoor pantry in Everman is one of about 60 mobile food pantries managed by the Tarrant Area Food Bank, Foster said, adding that there are stops in several other communities, including Fort Worth, Arlington and Crowley.
“We are in a community that doesn’t have easy access for people to go local market,” Foster said.
Hundreds of families are served at mobile pantries that park near schools, church parking lots and community centers throughout the year, including summer when schools are out, Foster said.
On one Thursday in April, families stood in line with laundry baskets, tote bags and boxes, waiting to fill them with collard greens, beets, carrots, onions and bell peppers. Each family could get up to 3 pounds of everything except the yogurt. The line typically starts forming at 7:30 a.m.
“We do it every month with a smile,” said Larry Garcia, a warehouse manager.
Maria Cordero, a mother of two from Everman, told the Star-Telegram in April the pantry helped the community and her family.
“It’s a great help,” she said.
King said keeping families fed helps students flourish and communities grow.
“How do we defeat poverty if we don’t feed our people?” King said.
‘Let us thank him for our food’
In North Richland Hills, children fall into a musical routine when lunch is served.
Akmakjian strikes notes on a piano and leads the room with song. The children sing a prayer that ends with “let us thank him for our food.”
Patty Lynn, family engagement coordinator for the Community Enrichment Center, manages the North Richland Hills feeding site and learning program, which continues through Aug. 10.
Lynn said when children are well-fed, learning follows.
Often, Lynn and her group of college-aged interns must connect with the youngsters so they feel comfortable to eat. She said sometimes hungry children are too proud to eat.
As Ari Mars, 8, munched happily on a chicken sandwich, she explained what she liked about the program: “Everything.”
Eleven-year-old Kalissa Melton admitted she is a picky eater (she is partial to bacon) and that summer isn’t always fun.
“It can be boring because everyone is sitting at home and there is not much to do,” Melton said.
Shatavia Andrews, a 20-year-old psychology major at the University of North Texas, said serving the children is rewarding. She said child hunger can seem invisible for many people, but there is no escaping the issue. She said children often ask for seconds, thirds and sometimes even a fourth serving of food.
“It’s really easy to look over it, if this isn’t your personal situation,” she said.
To find out more
Summer feeding programs throughout Tarrant County are providing breakfast and lunch to thousands of children at various sites that are partnering with the Tarrant Area Food Bank or the United States Department of Agriculture.
▪ To find out more about food programs through the Community Enrichment Center, call 817-281-1164.
▪ To find out more about food programs offered by Covered In Faith Ministries, call 817-657-0503.
▪ To find out more about food programs offered by the Tarrant Area Food Bank, call 817-857-7100.
▪ There is also a nationwide text number offered through an initiative from the No Kid Hungry organization that allows people to text “food” or “comida” to 877-877 to find a summer feeding location near them.