By Sara Tirrito
For the 27,000 students on free and reduced lunch at schools in McLennan County, finding balanced meals throughout the summer can prove challenging.
This year, several Waco groups are joining together to strengthen the city’s branch of the USDA Summer Food Services Program, which provides free meals to any child between the ages of 1 and 18 at various sites throughout the summer regardless of their socioeconomic status. Some sites provide breakfast as well. Sites are located at various schools in Waco, Connally and La Vega Independent School Districts, and also at other organizations and churches that volunteer to become sites.
“Part of the challenge with hunger issues is there’s not really anybody that it stops with,” Alexis Weaver, a member of the executive committee of the Food Planning Task Force of McLennan County and director of community development for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said. “It’s not anybody’s responsibility, and so we really want to make this feel like it is a community responsibility.”
Currently, the program in Waco faces some challenges. Not all of the sites at schools can stay open once summer school ends because of the cost of keeping buildings open and having staff present. Transportation to the sites has also been a hurdle for some students, and Weaver said many do not even realize they can receive the free meals without being enrolled in summer school. But this year, the Food Planning Task Force of McLennan County, the McLennan County Hunger Coalition and the Baylor School of Social Work chapter of the Texas Hunger Initiative are partnering with local school districts, church congregations and community groups to help increase the number of sites available for the Summer Food Services Program and to increase student participation in the program. The groups are being asked to plan simple activities that last 45 minutes to an hour and a half to encourage the students to take advantage of the program.
“Research shows that just saying ‘come eat free food’ is not enough to bring people out. And so what’s really needed is essentially almost like a mini summer camp. It doesn’t have to be a lot or an extensive activity, but being able to promote like come and read this summer or come and play basketball or whatever thing,” Weaver said.
Last Tuesday, the Food Planning Task Force of McLennan County, the McLennan County Hunger Coalition and the Baylor School of Social Work chapter of the Texas Hunger Initiative hosted the area’s first Summer Meals Summit to bring the churches and community groups together to discuss what they can do to strengthen the program this summer. Weaver said three churches signed up to serve as feeding sites at the summit and others agreed to meet again for further discussions in the coming weeks. Getting the community involved in the program has been a longtime goal of Cliff Reece, Waco Independent School District director of child nutrition services. He said the community’s involvement will help get the word out, and that the passion and commitment of those volunteers will help increase families’ comfort and participation in the program.
“Once you get to that level, there’s a lot of confidence between them and people feel comfortable,” Reece said. “If you can get the community to buy into something, understand it and then disseminate the information, I think we can actively get more children involved in the program, especially the kids that need the program.”
Reece said he hopes community involvement can also help to bolster participation even after summer school ends so the school district administration can support keeping more school sites open through the end of summer, despite costs. The district generally has 27-32 sites, about half of which are located at schools.
“In the past, unfortunately, when summer school ends the participation drops dramatically,” Reece said. “What I’m hoping is through the community effort, we can keep those participation levels up and we can keep those sites open.”
The Rev. Kenneth Moerbe, chairman of the McLennan County Hunger Coalition, said it is important to expand the Summer Food Services Program because there is poverty in Waco, but there is also nutritious food available for those who are hungry – many simply don’t know that it is available. Moerbe said the results of poverty in Waco are often visible in the obesity of children who have had to substitute fast food and other unhealthy options for more expensive fruits and vegetables that their families cannot afford.
“Wherever there’s poverty, there’s hunger. It’s not the kind of thing that you see in Third World countries,” Moerbe said. “You are going to see a lot of obese children.”
Because the Summer Food Services Program is federally funded, sites are reimbursed for the food they distribute to those under 18. However, grants and donations are needed in order to make meals free to parents and guardians accompanying the students. When such funding cannot cover the cost, parents and guardians can eat for $3 per meal.
The McLennan County Hunger Coalition has provided funds for the past two years to allow parents to eat in an initiative called Have Lunch on Us, and will be doing so again this year. Last year, the funds were distributed to five feeding sites in the area and approximately 500 parents were able to eat for free.
“We thought it would be encouraging to parents to bring their children if we bought them lunch,” Moerbe said.
Anyone under the age of 18 can eat at any site for free no matter where they live, where they go to school or their socioeconomic status.
For those with interest in volunteering for Summer Food Services Program, Reece can be reached at 254-752-5522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.