During a demonstration in downtown Waco’s Heritage Square, about 50 Waco Independent School District sixth- and seventh-graders held empty, decorated plates up high in silent solidarity and sweltering Texas heat Wednesday.

The plates represent children facing food insecurity in the United States, about one in five children, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

After the gesture and a few speeches, row by row, the students took the empty plates and dumped them in a gray barrel labeled with black marker, “2018 Budget Plan.”

The students are part of the first Freedom School endorsed by Children Defense Fund in Waco and hosted by Baylor University. Wednesday’s protest was part the fund’s National Day of Social Action, which encourages students to engage with a social justice issue, Freedom School site director Susan Duty said. The new summer program’s goal is to teach students about civil rights though culturally relevant topics.

The students marched from Heritage Square up Austin Avenue, then circled back to the square down Washington Avenue. Chanting and holding handmade signs, they were opposing a 2018 Congressional budget proposal that could cut money for programs that prevent childhood hunger, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“Some of our students rely on these to be fed, and kids all across the country rely on this for sort of that basic necessity,” Duty said. “Part of the Children Defense Fund Freedom School message is that students feel empowered at the end of the summer. Most of these issues are relevant to their lives, and we want them to understand they are citizens now. It doesn’t start when they turn 18.”

More than 78 percent of Waco ISD’s 15,000 students are in the free lunch program, and about 7 percent are in the reduced-price lunch program, according to school district demographic data. All of the students who participated Wednesday go to Cesar Chavez Middle School. More than 85 percent of the 891 students at Cesar Chavez receive free or reduced-price lunches, according to district data.

For some, this was their first protest.

“This march was one experience I’ll never forget. I know I can cooperate with people when we really try and work together,” Amiaha Jimenez, 11, said. “I hope people learn from my speech that they can do anything and that they need to think about things from other people’s perspectives instead of just theirs.”

Karina Santacruz, whose son and nephew both marched in Wednesday’s protest, said having children weigh in on social issues opens the door for them to make a difference for themselves and their peers.

“It’s beautiful to see these kids come together for something so big and something that can really change the future for their generation,” Santacruz said. “No matter what goes on in their lives, I want them to walk away knowing they can make a change.”

As she watched her son and nephew walk back toward Heritage Square holding their signs against child hunger, she said her heart swelled with pride because she is constantly trying to teach them to stand up for what’s right.

“These kids are not just at a camp or having fun, they’re actually doing work. … They already knew about how one in five kids are going to bed hungry. They already knew things like food insecurity,” said Craig Nash, the Texas Hunger Initiative’s childhood hunger specialist, after the march.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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