The Harlandale and San Antonio independent school districts are among the best in the state at making sure their students have enough to eat, according to new research from the nonprofit advocacy group Children at Risk.
The organization ranked districts based on how many students are using their free meal programs and how many meals they offer, based on data from the Texas Education Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
San Antonio ISD came up fourth in the rankings among the 62 Texas school districts with high concentrations of students living in poverty. Harlandale ISD ranked sixth.
“Harlandale always shows as sort of a top performer. I mean that’s a district that goes above and beyond trying to make sure that kids are fed. And then San Antonio ISD, which gets beat up on a lot because of academics, they’re going the extra mile and making sure kids are ready to learn by participating in the program to the fullest extent,” said Bob Sanborn, the president and CEO of Children at Risk.
Sanborn said his organization looked at participation instead of eligibility because it’s not enough for the programs to simply exist.
Many Texas school districts are able to offer free meals to everyone because a majority of their students come from low-income families. But Sanborn said that doesn’t mean all students are eating breakfast or the other meals.
“You’re still going to have a significant portion of kids who arrive late, who don’t get it. You’re still going to have kids who just say, ‘No, I don’t want it,’ ” Sanborn said. “If it’s served in the cafeteria and they say a hundred percent are free you still have a lot of kids who don’t want to go down to the cafeteria and say that they are poor kids.”
Sanborn said schools with higher participation rates offer grab and go options or breakfast in the classroom.
In addition to ranking fourth overall, San Antonio ISD was the best in the state among districts with at least 50,000 students.
“When we find a place like San Antonio that rises above a Dallas or a Houston it means that you have particularly good leadership — probably in the nutrition director’s area — support from the superintendent and, basically, pulling out all the stops to ensure that kids are being fed,” Sanborn said.
Almost 90 percent of San Antonio ISD students are eating school lunch. Dallas ISD has about 80 percent participation; Houston ISD has a little more than 70 percent. Meanwhile, about 64 percent of students in the statewide KIPP charter school system eat school lunch.
Still, Sanborn said Texas schools overall are increasing participation in meal programs.
“We absolutely have seen, I’d say in the last three or four years, significantly higher participation in breakfast, significantly higher numbers in (after school) snack. And this year we saw over 40 percent of districts across the state doing supper, and you would not have heard about that five years ago,” Sanborn said.
In addition to helping prevent child hunger, Sanborn said the food meal programs help students do better in school.
“If we want to make sure that kids do well academically and make sure that they emerge as hard-working citizens that go to college or get good jobs, we have to make sure that we’re feeding them,” Sanborn said.