Children in rural areas of Texas got about 32,000 boxes of food in the mail this past summer as part of a research effort by Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative.

The university announced Tuesday the project and Kathy Krey, hunger initiative director of research and administration, have received a three-year, $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. The work is intended to improve children’s access to adequate nutrition during the summer, when free and reduced-price meals are not available as part of the school day.

“The current solution to this problem, the federal Summer Food Service Program, doesn’t fit every scenario, because it requires that students congregate at a summer feeding site, often at a school or other central location,” Krey said in a university press release. “Especially in rural areas, which Texas has a lot of, those meal sites can be less effective because there are transportation, cost or awareness barriers for students who are more broadly dispersed from schools and other potential meal sites.”

If successful, a meal delivery program could supplement the Summer Food Service Program and keep kids from being left out. The grant will be used to buy “shelf-stable, nutritionally complete meals, including fruits and vegetables, which are packaged and delivered directly to families,” according to the press release.

In an interview Tuesday, Krey said the idea for the program came out of another research project she participated in several years ago with faculty from the business school who studied why children might not have access to summer food programs in their area.

She said they determined the primary barrier to access for students was transportation, particularly in rural areas. Summer food programs are usually hosted at schools, churches and other nonprofit organizations within a community.

“If they have to spend more on gas to drive 10 or 15 miles into town, that’s a barrier,” Krey said. “It’s not always feasible.”

Krey and a team of about 10 people worked with subcontractors and McLane Global to deliver food to about 4,300 kids in Henderson, Leon, Concho, Kimble and Upton counties this summer.

“We sent out a total of about 32,000 boxes that were being sent to children in rural areas,” Krey said.

Moving forward, they will be testing the cost-effectiveness, prospects for scaling up to serve more children, and the effects for children served, which will be reported to the USDA.

Krey said the team is still collecting and analyzing data on meals sent so far, including information about children’s health and academic performance following summer. The team is also working to determine where to send food for the next two summers.

“We’re really working right now to determine location and geography,” Krey said.

She said while the basic idea stays the same, the program has to be adapted to each community that receives it.

“It’s also so different,” Krey said. “Just because you know one rural community doesn’t mean you know another.”

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