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Food Program For Hungry Texas Kids, Once Delayed By Congress, Now Stuck In Bureaucratic Paperwork

SAISD buses are used for food delivery on 60 bus routes in SAISD.
SAISD Facebook page
SAISD buses are used for food delivery on 60 bus routes in SAISD.

The number of children who are hungry in Texas is grim. Nearly one in five families said they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the most recent census data. Millions of parents in the state are trying to feed their kids.

A federal program intended to help hungry kids through the pandemic hasn’t been renewed by the state of Texas yet. The Coronavirus Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) program was hailed as one of the best solutions to childhood hunger as the emergency food banks and other charity food programs were pushed to the brink last spring.

Childhood hunger isn’t just about temporary stomach rumbles and being unable to focus in class — it’s about lifelong damage.

“There's going to be damage to their health, in the long term, it's going to be really hard to undo, maybe impossible at scale,” said Diane Schanzenbach, director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research.

Studies have shown hungry kids are more than twice as likely to have poor health as adults, and that mental health can be affected.

Schools are often uniquely suited to help.

“We’re on the forefront. We are in a great place to address it head on,” said Jenny Arredondo, senior executive director of the Child Nutrition Program at San Antonio Independent School District.

That all changed last Spring when schools didn’t return to session after Spring break because of COVID-19.

“It was a very sobering moment. You know, especially providing nutrition for our students on a daily basis, and knowing how many of our students depended on that,” said Arredondo.

Kids that got some or all of their meals from schools across Texas suddenly weren’t going to be able to eat.

“I think we went into overdrive,” she said

Lines of cars queued in front of schools closed to students, as districts across Texas as the country instituted curbside pickup of lunches and at times other means for those families.

Food is given away at Edison High School
Food is given away at Edison High School.

SAISD has curbside at 33 of its campuses. Arredondo and SAISD started meal delivery. Buses run 60 routes across the district’s footprint. Worried about the ability of kids to get hot meals, they devised a plan.

It was a challenge. Keeping count of meals, ensuring food safety through temperature checks, and just figuring out what would travel well.

“We thought, like a burger, that it would transport. Well guess what? It did not transport well,” she said.

Despite all these efforts childhood hunger rose in Texas and nationwide according to census surveys.

The Coronavirus Pandemic EBT program was set up to give the cash value of those missed school meals to families. It was praised across the board by food insecurity experts. Every state took advantage — pushing funds to families. But the program expired at the end of August.

And USDA didn’t release application guidance for the current school year until November 16.

“And that’s bad. We should have gotten that money flowing months ago,” said Schanzenbach.

Two months later the Texas’ Health and Human services still hasn’t applied.

"Texas is currently developing P-EBT implementation and operation plans for the 2020-2021 school year, in collaboration with state stakeholders such as the Texas Education Agency and Texas Dept. of Agriculture," said Elliott Sprehe, Texas HHS spokesman in a statement.

He indicated it could be updated in a few weeks.

Sprehe didn’t respond to questions about the two-month delay and referred TPR to the USDA for an answer.

“I was hoping that this would be figured out by the end of December… I was wrong,” said Rachel Cooper— a senior policy analyst with Every Texan—with a sigh.

Cooper said the state did a great job rolling out the first round of P-EBT — setting up call centers and taking in applications from parents new to food assistance. The program was very quick and easy for people who already on federal food programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but with so many people losing their jobs in the second quarter of the year — it was a heavy lift to institute a completely new program for states in a compressed time.

Texas helped put more than $800 million into family pockets for food, according to Cooper.

But the second round is even more complex. The first round gave the money to families with kids in schools that were closed for more than five consecutive days. But in Texas schools were ordered to open in the Fall or risk financial consequences. Now state agencies have to assign value to meals that some students are missing some of the time.

“Figuring out which children are in class versus remote versus a hybrid model becomes much more difficult. And so that has really slowed down the process,” she said.

As a result of the complexity, only six states have been able to secure P-EBT funding so far. Cooper hopes that USDA and Texas State agencies know the urgency.

“(Families) will eventually get it once we get this figured out. But that doesn't help the family who's gone hungry for months, who were struggling to figure out how to pay for food for since the school year started,” said Cooper

Complicating things, many school districts in Texas have asked students to go back to learning remotely full-time to stop the spread of COVID-19: most recently the largest district in San Antonio, Northside ISD.

Brian Woods, NISD Superintendent, helping at a mass food distribution. NISD has regularly hosted mass distributions with the San Antonio Food Bank at the district's Gustafson Stadium.
Courtesy NISD
Brian Woods, NISD Superintendent, helping at a mass food distribution. NISD has regularly hosted mass distributions with the San Antonio Food Bank at the district's Gustafson Stadium.

“We're still operating and have been since March curbside pickup, you know, for students,” said Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside ISD.

“That (program) will continue during this time period, as well. And we anticipate we'll see an uptick in that, you know, and then in this window of time.”

These feeding programs that started last spring have continued in many districts and the USDA has issued several waivers to support and expand them.

But the numbers of kids receiving free-or-reduced lunch were higher and kids are falling through the cracks, according to Cooper.

The logistical problems the programs pose — which on the surface may seem slight — requiring people to pick up food or find ways to get to access it on the bus routes are barriers for some. These families need the Pandemic-EBT program and the state and federal government need to streamline the process.

“If we are so obsessed with not feeding the wrong child and giving a little too much cash to a child, we risk having other children go hungry,” she said “So where is our priority?”

Camille Phillips contributed reporting for this story.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @Paulflahive.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org