As the academic year winds down and students leave classrooms behind for the summer months, many Waco children also are leaving behind the opportunity to have at least two full meals per day.
Several worthy questions were raised in the June 7 Waco Tribune-Herald editorial [“Summer meals — more collaboration needed so children don’t go hungry this summer”] regarding the low attendance and communications efforts surrounding federally sponsored summer feeding sites, which provide children of low-income Waco families with free meals until fall classes resume. Indeed, at the Texas Hunger Initiative in the Baylor University School of Social Work, we are researching those very issues.
But one question raised early in the editorial has already been answered: “Is the need there?”
We know that McLennan County has approximately 15,490 food-insecure children — meaning that on any given day these children may not know when or from where their next meal is coming.
“About 73 percent of food-insecure children in Waco are income-eligible for nutrition programs, with incomes at or below 185 percent of poverty, and they often rely on free or reduced-priced school meals. That need doesn’t evaporate in the summer months,” said Dr. Kathy Krey, director of research for the Texas Hunger Initiative. “The summer nutrition programs have struggled to meet that need in Waco and we want to evaluate the program and learn ways to improve it, but we also know that, as a community, we can’t wait to provide those needed resources to our children.”
Recent grant funding has made it possible for the Texas Hunger Initiative to partner with faculty in Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business in addressing the issues of low attendance and high turnover rate of sponsor sites. Together, we are laying the groundwork to develop a fiscally sustainable summer meals model that can work in Waco and across the state.
“It’s important to recognize that Waco’s summer-meals program participation numbers, while grievously low, are comparable to a lot of cities. Yet, there has been little to no research on the question of how to get kids fed over the summer,” said Dr. Jeff Tanner, associate professor in the Hankamer School of Business. “Rather than continue to operate on assumptions, we have an opportunity with this grant to find out what really will work and what really are barriers, such as the lack of transportation or other factors that might be limiting access.”
Embarrassment of being seen at or entering a feeding site by potential food recipients was suggested in the editorial as a possible hindrance to participation. Marketing efforts promoting awareness about summer meals also were questioned.
“If embarrassment is a barrier, research suggests that broad advertising can de-stigmatize the situation by reducing the perceived barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ” Tanner said. “Further, it reaches those who can influence potential participants and word of mouth is an important channel of communication. Again, this is something we will be studying.”
In addition, we’ve encouraged our community partners who are involved with anti-hunger efforts — those providing direct services and access to summer meals — to promote the Texas Department of Agriculture and Share Our Strength’s new texting tool. This was created to help low-income families quickly locate a summer meals location. The editorial questioned whether low-income families all have access to texting devices. But regardless of demographics or income level, almost everyone has a cell phone and is texting. According to an April 2013 report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, cellphone ownership among adults exceeds 90 percent, including 86 percent of adults with household incomes of less than $30,000 per year. Of all cellphone owners, 80 percent use their cellphones to text.
Statistics aside, we appreciate that key questions are being asked by the Trib and that our community is concerned not only with the effectiveness of programs offered, but ultimately with the well-being of citizens they are meant to serve. Waco is taking leadership on the issues of poverty and hunger, and that is thrilling to see.
Jeremy Everett is director of the Texas Hunger Initiative through Baylor University’s School of Social Work.