By: Brooke Hill | Staff Writer
Baylor Graduate Jeremy Everett is the founder and executive director of Texas Hunger Initiative (THI), an organization that began in a small office in a Baylor parking garage. THI, which is part of the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, strives to help eradicate hunger in Texas, and to do so through a model that can be replicated all across the nation. 25 states have consulted with THI on strategies and programs that have worked with them. Over the past eight years, Everett has raised over $30 million to help fight hunger.
Everett explained that the vision for Texas Hunger Initiative actually came from work he was doing with Hurricane Katrina evacuees. What he saw was individuals ready and willing to help, but groups of people were working independently rather than working together, leaving them unaware of what other groups were doing.
“What we found with the state of the union as relates to anti-poverty initiatives around the country, is that people were doing great work, but because the need was so insurmountable, people were just focused on what was right in front of them,” Everett said. “Organizations didn’t really have the time to just look and see what others were doing and figure out ways that they could work together, so that became the vision for THI.”
In 2014, the National Commission on Hunger was formed to assist Congress in addressing the issue of food insecurity. Everett was one of the 10 members chosen to help come up with new policies that could improve the government’s understanding of what needs to be done to combat hunger. However, Everett explained that, at first, the ten of them couldn’t agree on anything. Five were democrats and five were republicans, and they argued constantly.
“That happened until we decided to go into communities around the country,” Everett said. “One really transformative experience was we were in El Paso. A professor who was working in Texas along the Mexico border and his team were visiting with a woman and her family and they asked if they were experiencing hunger, if they had any food in the house. The woman took them to her little refrigerator and there was a bag of chicken bones in there. The professor said ‘why in the world do you have chicken bones in your fridge?’ It was the only thing that was in there. And she said ‘This way when my children are hungry and they open up the refrigerator, they’ll at least see that something is there.’ Well that kind of experience and visiting with these families and hearing those stories across the country it began to break down those differences that we had.”
As a result, the committee ended up making 20 consensus results to Congress and to the President on ways that the government strengthen our response to the issue of hunger, including fostering relationships between private and public entities and making food more accessible to children over summers, especially in rural areas.
Everett said that since he graduated from Truett Seminary, his background with Baylor and Baylor’s mission statement helped form his passion for the hungry and devotion to finding ways to help others. The faculty at Truett showcased exactly what it meant to truly love others.
“A small group of seminary students and I moved into an inner city house while we lived here, and it turned out that our little part of the neighborhood was the center of prostitution in Waco and a lot of drug trafficking was happening there right on our corner, so we were able to meet a lot of people that we otherwise wouldn’t have,” Everett said. “We would have dinners in our house and faculty would come over and eat dinner with the prostitutes from the neighborhood or people we were able to form relationships with, and that was incredibly formational to me, to see people not only teaching me more about what Jesus was saying in the gospels, but showing me what this meant to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbors yourself.
Craig Nash, Child Hunger Outreach Specialist for the Waco regional office of Texas Hunger Initiative, shared that one in five kids statewide are food insecure. THI defines food insecurity as lack of access to three health meals a day seven days a week. For McLennan county that number is around one in three, showing that there in a greater need in McLennan county than other parts of the state. Nash said that 89% of all Waco ISD students qualify for free and reduced lunches, while the statewide average is about half.
Nash said that one of the biggest problems with food insecurity these days is the shaming effect that comes with free and reduced meals.
“There’s a kind of a stigma associated with school breakfast,” Nash said. “Kids who eat free lunch, there’s a way to participate in that that doesn’t single you out because everyone goes to lunch. When I was in elementary school, we had to bring our lunch money every day, and in the younger grades if you were on full priced meals, you had to pay for yours and you brought your money every day. At roll call, the teacher would call your name and you would go up and give her your money. But if you were on free lunch and they called your name, you would just say free. Well that has a shaming effect on kids and so the fact that we don’t do that anymore is really amazing, for lunch. But for breakfast, it’s so separate from the school day and so kids that eat breakfast can sometimes be singled out and that stigma is associated with it.”
Nash is always searching for ways to get the Waco community more involved with helping to alleviate hunger. For child nutrition programs, people operating the program get reimbursed a certain amount of money for every meal they serve a child. That reimbursement rate changes based on the need of the community, and Waco ISD has such a high poverty rate that sponsors can max out the reimbursement that they’re getting for each meal, according to Nash.
“One of the ways that I’m really hoping to work with churches in the next several years is to try to get neither a church or a coalition of churches working together to actually operate the program where they are similar to Waco ISD, contracting with the Texas Department of Agriculture, doing all the administrative work and preparing the meals and finding sites for those meals to be delivered,” Nash said. “These are federal programs and so that may be why a lot of churches are hesitant, but there’s nothing stopping a church from participating.”