The Heart of Texas summer meals program is back in action, offering meals to children while school is out of session.

The program is scaling back the number of sites in Waco and Bellmead where it will offer meals this year after a few years of adding sites, said Craig Nash, the Texas Hunger Initiative child hunger outreach specialist for Waco. Officials don’t expect the reduction in meal sites to reduce the number of meals served, and about 70 sites in the area are up and running this summer.

“A couple of years ago, we kind of went through a phase where we were just adding sites and really kind of experimenting in neighborhoods that may not have had a high concentration of kids, but we were setting up sites just in case,” Nash said. “We’ve learned over the years where the need is and we’re refining that.”

Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative hosted kick off events Monday and Tuesday at Seley Park and Brame Park to celebrate the start of the program, which addresses a meal gap for children and added expenses parents face while school is out for three months, Nash said.

The Texas Hunger Initiative, a collaborative project that focuses on tackling childhood hunger statewide, has served as a coordinator for the summer meals program about seven or eight years, but the summer meals program has operated for much longer, he said. It brings the Waco and La Vega school districts together with nonprofit groups to serve at dozens of school and community sites, he said.

“Some of the parents in the summer, they struggle with food, and this gives them a little bit of breathing room,” La Vega ISD parent Carmen Castro said. “You don’t have to worry about what you’re going to have for lunch or trying to come up with something. It’s just different.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses the groups that run the program for every meal served, meaning it costs the local groups basically nothing to operate, Nash said. Meals are free to all children and teenagers ages 18 or younger, regardless of enrollment, ID or proof of income.

The Texas Hunger Initiative has about 5,500 meal sites operating across the state, twice as many as when it started in 2009, senior director Jeremy Everett said.

“Now we’re serving about a hundred million meals annually, during school and during summer,” Everett said. “I think it’s just more of an awareness. We had 5.5 million food-insecure individuals in 2009. We’ve almost seen that number drop by a million people in that time period. The jobs and economy, and so on and so forth, is strengthening, but the need is still high.”

As part of the effort, Waco ISD will also continue its Meals on the Bus program, and La Vega ISD will host its annual Lunch Bus Express, using school buses to deliver nutritious lunches to local parks, libraries, community centers and churches. Both programs have been running since about 2014 and 2015, respectively.

“Even with 5,500 meal sites, it’s inadequate to serve all the children food,” Everett said. “People are beginning to realize parks are an ideal location, and what’s happening is we’re all becoming better at getting food to the kids at the right time and the right location.”

In a September study done by the Texas Hunger Initiative, researchers found more than 1 in 4 children in the state are considered food-insecure. Public school systems are quickly becoming the primary infrastructure to address the ongoing issue of childhood hunger, and Waco ISD is no exception, according to the study.

Overall, 63 percent of McLennan County students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals in the 2014-15 school year, according to the study. The same year, 87.4 percent of Waco ISD’s students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, the study states. About half of La Vega ISD’s 3,000 students receive free or reduced-price lunch, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.

‘Everybody needs help’

Castro, who has two children in La Vega ISD and will soon have a third, doesn’t consider himself a parent who is facing financial hardships, he said. But he sees it every day, and said he plans to take his children to Brame Park twice a week to keep them from going stir crazy during the summer. A free meal offered by La Vega ISD as part of the summer meal program is just a bonus, he said.

“This will give them a chance to be around other kids and give them time to play. There’s a lot of kids they can play with, and I think it’s a good idea for other parents, especially in Bellmead,” Castro said. “Some parents really, really struggle. I want to say we’re good, but everybody needs help once in a while.”

The eight or 10 mobile sites, like Seley Park and Brame Park, will feed 10 to 15 children each, Nash said. The stand-alone sites where school districts deliver the meals, like a community recreation center, will serve upward of 100-120 meals a day, Nash said.

Waco ISD’s bus will visit Seley Park at 12:40 p.m. every day, and La Vega’s bus will visit Brame Park at 12:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, officials with the programs said.

The Heart of Texas summer meals program also gives children a chance to forget about the possibility of going hungry and be in a place where they can make new friends, which can help reduce the stigma of a difficult financial situation, he said.

“There’s research that says one of the most intimate things you can do with someone is share a meal with them,” Nash said. “Not just the kids, but the families who come here, get connected with each other. It strengthens neighborhoods in a way really few other things can.”

For more information or to find the nearest meal site, families can visit summerfood.org, call 211 or text FOODTX to 877-877.

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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