More than one in four children are considered food insecure in Texas, and the public school system is growing as the primary infrastructure for tackling childhood hunger, according to the third edition of the Texas School Breakfast Report Card, a recently released study by Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative.
Waco Independent School District reflects that picture absolutely, said Cliff Reece, the district’s Child Nutrition Services director.
Reece, who has worked closely with Texas Hunger Initiative, helped provide data for the study and show what challenges school districts like Waco ISD face. The study breaks down the average breakfast participation for school districts in every county in the state. The goal for the Texas Hunger Initiative is to have 70 percent of the students who eat free or reduced-price lunch also eat free or reduced-price breakfast.
“We look at food insecurity data from a statewide perspective, which allows us to recognize trends and develop effective strategies that can be implemented across our diverse state,” Kathy Krey, director of research for the Texas Hunger Initiative, stated in a press release on the report. “It is an invaluable tool for improving participation in school breakfast and reducing childhood food insecurity.”
Food insecurity means a person doesn’t have access to nutritious, readily available food, Reece said.
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 district’s population is 80 percent economically disadvantaged, and Reece said he sees dozens of students every day who come in hungry before classes start.
Though county initiatives and nonprofits are fighting childhood hunger and the district also runs a mobile program and a summer food program, with about 66 hours between Friday lunch and Monday breakfast, students may go a few days without eating a substantial meal, he said. Sometimes students don’t even get to eat the donated food they bring home, he said.
For Reece, those Monday mornings are the most difficult.
“The saddest thing for me is Monday morning. This is typically your elementary kids, because your middle and high school kids are pretty good about guarding themselves as they get older,” Reece said. “But these elementary kids are running to get into the service line, literally running, which gives you an indication right there they’re hungry. Or they’re coming back asking for seconds or you can see they haven’t had a great weekend. You can see it by their personality, their emotions, their clothing. You can see all that happening, and a lot of them become quiet and drawn off. They want the food, but they’re also scared of the situation they grow up and live in.”
One of the big challenges with breakfast, unlike lunch where the children are already at school, is timing, Reece said. In about a 30-minute window from about 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., sometimes elementary campuses are hustling to get about 300 students through a serving line, while also dealing with students who arrive late, he said.
“You have issues with buses not arriving on time. You have issues with parents maybe not getting kids to school on time, and maybe the kids aren’t mentally prepared to study yet. Maybe they had a rough night or weekend, so breakfast has its challenges,” Reece said.
“Not only that, but especially in elementary, typically the kids are arriving and going to the cafeteria by themselves. You have these little tiny children who are coming through your serving line and they’re scared to death, and mom’s told them not to talk to any strangers. So you’re trying to find out what they want to eat and at the same time, get 300 other kids through this tight window.”
Students who participate in school breakfast have a higher success rate at school, with decreased tardiness and absences and better attention and behavior, according to the study. School breakfast also promotes good health and has been associated with a lower probability of depression and obesity and fewer visits to the nurse’s office, the study showed.
With those elements in mind, Texas Hunger Initiative officials worked with Waco ISD to come up with ways to address the challenges, Reece said. The organization worked with the district to develop breakfast carts, grab-and-go breakfasts and late breakfasts for students coming in right as the bell rings, he said. More projects may be coming.
“The high school is a challenge in and of itself, because the campuses are huge and the cafeteria is not always the cool place to be,” Reece said. “So is there a way to bring the carts closer to them, so you can still get a nutritious meal to them? That’s kind of what the cart concept is.”
While Texas Hunger Initiative is helping local school districts, the No. 1 way to address childhood hunger is to have constant communication and awareness in the community by distributing information and teaching about nutrition in neighborhoods, he said. Then, the community can come together and help children in need, Reece said.
A good place to start is to hook up with an organization like Texas Hunger Initiative, because they’re always looking for people who can help or get involved in the school, even if you’re not a parent, he said.
“The school district and community are very intimately involved in this,” Reece said. “As long as there’s continued attention and people are coming together and having dialogue, we can chip away at some solutions. I know it’s slow. Things take a long time to improve, but if you impact one child, you’ve done something.”