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Report: Number Of Hungry Families Nearly Doubled During Pandemic In San Antonio Public Schools

Urban Education Institute Director Mike Villarreal speaks as volunteers load food into cars behind him.
Camille Phillips
Texas Public Radio
Urban Education Institute Director Mike Villarreal announces the results of a survey on school hunger at a food distribution in the parking lot of a Northside ISD football stadium Oct. 2, 2020.

One out of four families in San Antonio public schools has experienced hunger since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a report released Friday by the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Urban Education Institute.

The report is based on a survey of 1,125 families from eight local school systems conducted during the spring and summer. About 26% of the families surveyed told the institute that they sometimes or often ran out food without money to buy more.

“That level of food insecurity we have not seen before. Before the pandemic, a (2018 countywide) study set our level of food insecurity at about 14%. So during this pandemic, those figures have doubled for our public school families,” said Mike Villarreal, the director of the Urban Education Institute.

Families in San Antonio’s South and West Sides reported even higher rates of hunger, rising to nearly 50% in the Edgewood Independent School District.

“That is hard to wrap your head around. We really need a solution for Edgewood. And we also need a solution for Harlandale and Southwest ISD, because their numbers are equally as high there. They're at 41%,” said Villarreal.

San Antonio ISD, which has a poverty rate almost as high as Edgewood, did not participate in the survey.

The institute chose to announce the survey results during a food distribution in the Northside school district to provide other Bexar County districts with a possible solution.

The San Antonio Food Bank has hosted the distribution in the parking lot of a Northside football stadium every other week since April.

“I believe the Northside model is a model to learn from and to replicate. Not copy exactly, but to learn from and reinvent on the South Side of San Antonio, in our rural communities,” Villarreal said. “Having one regional location allows for the largest amount of food to be distributed at the least amount of cost.”

Transportation and time constraints can make it difficult for families to drive to their school every day to pick up school meals. Districts across the country have seen a dramatic drop in the number of lunches served during remote learning, even in areas where most children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“There's a serious cost for families who, in some parts of town, have to find gas money to put in the car to drive every day to a neighborhood school to pick up a meal,” Villarreal said. “That is not very feasible when they could come to a regional site and pick up food for two weeks.”

Northside Superintendent Brian Woods said the survey put statistics behind a fact already known by the district — that hunger “exists in this community.” Almost a quarter of the Northside families surveyed by the institute reported sometimes running out of food without money to buy more.

“We know very well that students who are hungry are not successful learners, and we knew we had to mitigate that in order to have any success in our pandemic response,” Woods said.

Woods, Villarreal and San Antonio Food Bank President Eric Cooper also called for policy changes at the state and federal level to reduce hunger in a more holistic way “that gets families out of parking lots and into grocery stores.”

“We haven't pivoted as a nation, we haven't pivoted in Texas, to eliminate some of those policy barriers,” Cooper said. “In Texas, if you apply for (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps) and your vehicle's worth more than $15,000, you automatically don't qualify. But COVID laid off people that had jobs that could afford vehicles that now can't afford their vehicle and can't afford food.”

TPR’s new podcast, the Shakeout, explores those policy suggestions in more detail, along with the deep impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on hunger in South Texas.

The Urban Education Institute survey also found a high correlation between hunger and student participation during remote learning.

While only 20% of high school students surveyed said their families sometimes ran out of food without money to buy more, 65% of high school students who said they never turned in assignments also said they sometimes went hungry.

“They're not able to engage in their classroom lessons. They are not turning in their homework. They're disengaging from the learning experience, and at a crucial formative part of their life,” Villarreal said. “These are our future leaders that our community is going to rise or fall with. It is so important that we care for them and make sure they realize their full potential.”

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@TPR.org and on Twitter at @cmpcamille. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.