Summer Meals Are Free But Many Kids Can't Get To The Sites
Last year Texas received almost $60 million for its Summer Meals Program to feed low income children. But most kids just aren’t showing up, leaving many to worry they’re going hungry. But why?
Jessica Raygoza is putting lunches on trays for her two children and her nephew at Davis Middle School in the San Antonio Independent School District. Today’s menu is baked chicken, mixed vegetables, cooked carrots, a whole wheat roll, a pear and milk. Raygoza has brought the kids here every weekday for lunch since the school began serving free meals this summer. She says it’s helpful because her family has one income, the kids are hungry all day long and groceries are expensive.
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"They’re eating their vegetables," Raygoza says. "They provide a lot of healthy options. That’s something that’s really important to me because to go to the grocery store, it’s so easy to buy food that’s cheaper that’s high in sugars, and fatty—and chips. I don’t want them eating chips all day."
The Raygoza family looks small in the cafeteria. The rest of the tables are empty. Every day they’ve come this week, they’ve been the only family to show up.
Grace Norman is the No Kid Hungry Campaign Manager at Texas Hunger Initiative. She says the low turnout rate is a trend across Texas, and the nation because of a lack of transportation.
"Kids needing to find a way to get to a site when school buses aren’t necessarily running or parents or guardians are working during the day can really hinder their access to these sites," Norman says.
The Texas Hunger Initiative says only 10 percent of Texas children who qualify for free or reduced lunches during the school year participate in the summer meals program. The group says that number drops to 4 percent for SAISD.
Congress allots funds for the Summer Meals Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, which gives the funds to the states, including the Texas Department of Agriculture. Sites that serve meals, such as schools, churches, camps, YMCA’s are then reimbursed for the number of meals served.
Eddie Longoria is the Special Nutrition Program’s regional director for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. He agrees that transportation is a problem, but says the USDA can only pay for food, and nothing else.
"I know that Texas Department of Agriculture has looked at ways to work with Texas Department of Transportation to try to find a way that maybe local buses can provide transportation," Longoria says.
Jennifer Dorsett is a communications officer for the Texas Department of Agriculture. She says she’s also aware that transportation is an issue, but that it isn’t true that her department is working on fixing the problem.
"We’re just in charge of distributing the monies to these campuses that apply. As far as the transportation, it’s something the school would have to tackle," Dorsett says.
Leslie Price is a spokeswoman from SAISD. She says the district doesn’t and isn’t going to have the funds to provide transportation to students who can’t make it to meal sites on their own.
Jeremy Everett is the Director of Texas Hunger Initiative at Baylor University. He says in the United States, no one is responsible for tackling food insecurity. So when a problem arises like kids not getting to the sites to eat, there’s no governing body responsible for fixing it. He does point out that since 2009, 5,000 more meal sites have opened in Texas which has resulted in 21 million more meals being served to children.
Jessica Raygoza knows she’s fortunate that she has transportation to get her kids to lunch. She estimates she’ll save $300 this summer because of the program. She says if this wasn’t an option, her family’s budget would be stretched thin.
"It’d be really hard, because I’d be having to spend more money grocery shopping for the summer which would make it tighter for our bills. I don’t know. It’s really helpful. I’d have to really try to limit what we can have, limit it to things like Ramen noodles. That would be our dinner, or snack," Raygoza says.
But for now her family is eating well. Wagner, her 11-year-old nephew, says he likes coming to eat here. He doesn’t miss a beat when asked what food’s been his favorite so far.
"This week it would be this chicken, with the pear, and the gravy. It’s really good," Wagner says.
Raygoza says she plans to bring Wagner and her two kids here every day the school is open for free lunch this summer.