Thursday, in the Amon Carter-Riverside High School cafeteria in Fort Worth, sweaty football and baseball players took a break from off-season workouts in the weight room to do what growing teens everywhere live to do. Eat.
The cheeseburgers, corn and carrots, fresh strawberries and milk were all courtesy of the Summer Meals program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and managed by the state’s agriculture department.
By all accounts the food met the athletes’ approval. Plenty of them were lining up for seconds.
What was missing, however, were the the many other kids in the neighborhood for whom these summer meals are also offered, and may be the only nutritious food available to them all day.
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So, as caring members of the community, we need to consider ways we can get the word out about this program
Many Texas children lack access to enough healthy food
Across Texas, 2.8 million children come from low-income families which qualifies them for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunches at school. Some districts even send their neediest children home with backpacks full of additional food.
During the summer, districts like Fort Worth ISD and some community groups continue to offer breakfast and lunch five days a week through this meals program. The food is free to any child 18 or under. No ID or signup is required. Just show up.
“I think this is the most valuable program I’ve seen in Fort Worth ISD in many, many years,” said Carter-Riverside's head football coach, Jim Jeffries, as he watched his athletes dig into their burgers.
Jeffries said some of his students may not have access to enough healthy food at home. “Most of their parents are working, so during the summer the house is pretty bare and they (the older students) have to watch their siblings.”
Cindy Lowman, who manages the cafeteria, said: “Some of them, when they get home, aren’t going to have anything else to eat for the rest of the day.”
Barriers to receiving the summer meals
According to a Texas Hunger Initiative report, getting to the meal locations for many children seems to the biggest barrier to participating. They may not have transportation and in some communities the locations are too far for small children to walk.
Parents who are working may not want their children going alone to a meal location. It’s also possible they may not be aware the high-quality, fresh food is available.
There’s no way of knowing how many children who could benefit from the summer meals are just going hungry, but it’s clear that in Fort Worth only a fraction of students with limited resources are showing up for the food.
First, consider that 77 percent of Fort Worth students come from homes with incomes low enough to qualify them for free or reduced priced meals.
Then consider that the Fort Worth district served an average 63,000 meals a day during the 2017 school year. During the summer meals program last year the district served just 5 percent of that number, an average 2,886 meals a day.
Spread the word about a vital program
Fort Worth ISD sent pamphlets home with students and posted information on its website.
It’s paired the 57 meal locations with district activities so students going to the campuses for athletics, tutoring and summer camps automatically have access to the food. Guidelines call for locating the the meal sites in areas where at least half of the students are economically disadvantaged, so the neediest children should be those closest to the summer food.
If you check out a statewide map of summer food locations, you’ll see many small or suburban Texas communities offer only a few or no summer meal locations for children. But in school districts like Fort Worth, Arlington and Hurst-Euless-Bedford there are numerous locations.
At your place of worship, recreation centers and neighborhood associations — spread the word and attempt to reach families who could use this resource. Income may not be the only factor limiting the healthy food children are getting. A single parent's schedule may leave little time to prepare healthy meals. Illness or a disability may also affect food availability.
Anywhere in Texas you can find the closest summer meal location by calling 211 or checking the interactive map at summerfood.org.
Summer may be the hungriest time of the year for many children. Here’s a program that can help.