Increased participation in school breakfast and summer meal programs across the state are among the results seen so far from a now annual hunger summit hosted by the Texas Hunger Initiative.
The Baylor University-based hunger initiative said the gains can be attributed to greater collaboration among groups that aim to eliminate hunger and food insecurity.
“There wasn’t a lot of collective trust in this space and every sector operated independently of every other sector. And even more so, individual organizations were solely working within their own organizational spectrum,” said Jeremy Everett, director of THI. “We weren’t able to get the multiplier effect — the benefit of what happens from everybody working together.”
The organization first held its “Together at the Table” hunger summit in 2009 as a means of bringing representatives from nonprofits and state and federal agencies together to more effectively trade ideas and share resources for ending hunger and boosting access to nutritional meals.
Since then, summer meal participation has grown by 4 million students statewide. Also, Texas schools in 2012 increased breakfast service by 15 million meals.
At its most recent summit in October, the hunger initiative unveiled preliminary research findings examining best practices for the various food programs and measuring the benefits of the higher participation rates.
For example, schools who implemented some method of serving breakfast in classrooms generally have a 85 percent to 90 percent participation rate, compared to 35 percent participation under the traditional cafeteria breakfast service, Everett said.
Kathy Krey, director of research for THI, said preliminary results from a recent study show tardies and disciplinary referrals decrease while test scores and attendance rise for students who eat breakfast. That study is to be completed by the end of December, she said.
Krey and a team of professors in Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business also are starting a multiyear research project that focuses on methods of lowering costs and reducing turnover for sites that serve summer meals. Though the sites are reimbursed for food costs and preparation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some struggle with staffing the locations to serve the children.
“We want to know what’s working, and if something isn’t working, we don’t want to spend all of our time and energy in advocating for it and pushing for it if it’s not going to be effective in the long run,” Krey said.
This year’s summit also put a spotlight on afterschool meal programs, the final piece to ensuring that school-aged children can get three healthy meals during the school year.
Dallas-based nonprofit City Square soon will partner with the city of Waco to implement a new mobile afterschool meal program.
The city in August received a $45,000 grant from the National League of Cities to start the initiative, and it will contract with City Square to prepare and deliver the meals.
The nonprofit already runs a network of vans that serves 9,600 free summer meals daily to kids in apartment complexes in Dallas, Houston and Austin.
Keven Vicknair, vice president of strategic thought for City Square, said the organization will adapt that model to serve Waco afterschool feeding sites to eliminate transportation concerns for families who may not be able to travel to the various dinner locations.
“Solutions on a global, macro level sometimes seem like common sense, but the implementation isn’t,” said Vicknair, who spoke about City Square’s mobile program at the hunger summit.
“For solutions that are really innovative and on the cutting edge, sometimes it is about exchanging ideas, and that’s where the summit is very helpful. When people share the things that they’re doing, it’s not, ‘I could have thought of that,’ but more, ‘I never would have thought about that if I hadn’t talked to you.’ ”
Jaron Barganier, founder and CEO of Houston-based nonprofit Be A Champ Inc., attended the summit for the first time this year.
With some guidance from THI, the 12-year-old organization began offering afternoon meals in April to students who participate in their free youth enrichment programs, and quickly saw demand jump to 40,000 meals per day to students at 80 schools in the Greater Houston area.
Barganier said the summit helped him connect with other leaders and organizations that will likely prove useful as Be A Champ works to secure funding to double the afterschool feeding program.
The organization has a grant from the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program to cover food costs, but is looking to finalize a deal with a distributor to prepare the meals instead of relying on volunteers to purchase food from local grocery stores and fix the dinners.
“The bigger the city is, the harder it is to find resources,” Barganier said. “In a town like Waco, everybody knows everybody, so if you ask a question, someone can point you in the right direction. In a city like Houston, if you ask, for example, ‘What’s a good burger joint?’ you’ll get 1,000 different answers. But how do you know where to go?
“The summit helps weed out what’s good information and what could be useful in helping you implement your goals.”