Going to where the hunger is

Part 2: How some are taking the fight to feed kids on the road.

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of our report on San Antonio’s summer hunger crisis.
Part 1: Why so many San Antonio children spend the summer hungry

Most weekdays in each of the past two summers, Renee Rangel and her children, Aiden Serrano, 4, and Desiree Serrano, 14, have crossed their small front yard in the far northeast corner of San Antonio and boarded a yellow school bus. This summer, the bus shows up promptly at 1:10 p.m.

They sit in renovated booths — bus seats turned to face each other in pairs with small black tables between them — and eat a hot meal.

The Serranos’ favorite meal is pizza, but the pair likes most of the other options — even the healthy sides like fruits and vegetables.

“It’s expensive to have the kids home for the summer,” Rangel said. “The children need three meals a day, and it’s hard to afford that.”

Typically, school districts around the country serve meals like this in cafeterias, but last summer North East Independent School District revamped an old school bus. The meals are sponsored by the federal government through the Summer Food Service Program. The bus travels through four low-income neighborhoods, spending about 30 minutes at each while children eat.

Rangel works from home at night while the children sleep, but she struggled to afford enough food for her family before the bus started coming around two years ago.

North East ISD participates in the federal summer nutrition programs — two programs funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reimburse schools and nonprofits that feed students in economically distressed communities.

The programs are supposed to ensure hungry children have access to food. However, on local, state and national levels, there has traditionally been low participation — and it has only worsened over the past three years.

One of the main reasons cited for low turnout is transportation.

“We have seen such positive results (from the mobile cafe),” Sharon Glosson, executive director of school nutrition at NEISD, said. “We are not necessarily feeding 100s of children, but we feel like we are making a big difference for the kids we feed.”

Creston Ridge mobile home park is one of four stops the bus makes. The stops were identified with the help of the transportation department and represent low income communities with more than 100 children.

In June 2017, 919 meals were served from the mobile cafe.

“Some people have asked me ‘Are you breaking even?’… Probably not,” Glosson said. “The renovations were an investment … but in terms of nonfinancial pay off — oh, more than we could have imagined.”

If it was not for the bus, Rangel said her family would not have access to meals provided by the district. Driving her children to the school for breakfast and lunch would be too expensive and timely. Instead, they wait for the bus for lunch every day they can.

‘These children are our children, too’

Many children walk to summer food programs. Often parents are unable to bring their kid to the feeding sites because of work or because they cannot afford the gas money.

This is not the first mobile cafe in the nation, or even the state, but it may be the only one operating in Bexar County.

At least two Bexar County districts, San Antonio ISD and South San Antonio ISD, are looking at starting similar services next year.

Districts and nonprofits alike are struggling to find solutions to low turnout so that more children can use their food programs. Reimbursement rates for summer meals served leave little room for high overhead costs, so districts have to choose how to strategically use their resources to reach as many children as possible.

For Southside ISD, a small, rural district with the most successful district-sponsored feeding program in the county, that means child nutrition staff members load truck every morning and afternoon with hot food and deliver it to housing complexes.

“We can sit here and say it’s the parent’s responsibility to feed their children,” Julian Monreal, Southside ISD’s executive director of operation, said. “But it’s about ownership. It is about having the ownership and responsibility mentality. These children are our children, too.”

He is aware that the meals he and his staff deliver might be the only food the students have access to.

The district is rolling out a mobile cafe next summer to capture more of the needy children.

“It is an investment,” Monreal said. “But it is not about the money. It is an investment in the children.

“You go out into the district, to a Walmart, and you see these kids. They are excited to see you. They say, ‘That’s my lunch lady, that’s my bus driver.’ We make investments like (the mobile cafe) for those kids — we have a responsibility to serve them.”

Feeding school kids year-round

Snack Pak 4 Kids of San Antonio provides weekend food assistance during the school year. They are not funded by the summer nutrition programs. They focus on closing the weekend gap between school meals for the most distressed children in San Antonio. During the summer, they provide the same type of food — non-perishable, brand name food children can eat without the assistance of adults.

During the school year, the food is delivered directly to schools, where teachers place it in children’s backpacks. During the summer, volunteers drive food to students’ houses, provided parents have signed permission slips. Sometimes they hand the food to the child or family. Sometimes they leave it on the stoop because no one answers the door.

One of the summer Snack Pak 4 Kids bags that is delivered to kids once a week when school is not in session. Wendi Poole

“We don’t just deliver food … we say we are an education enhancement tool,” said Leslie Kingman, volunteer executive director of Snack Pak 4 Kids. “During the school year we can confirm that. Now, during the summer, we basically just feed because we can’t imagine not.

“We can’t say we care about kids if we don’t care about them year round … If these kids are hungry during the school year, then, oh my gosh, what must the summer look like?”

The children that Snack Pak 4 Kids feed have been identified by their teachers as students who likely suffer from chronic hunger. Kingman estimates that only about 10 to 20 percent of the students who receive meals through school-sponsored federal programs are chronically hungry.

That means the children she is feeding are some of the hungriest in the city.

“There are a lot of issues other than food,” Kingman says. “Our hope is that if we take care of the hunger issue the (families) will be able to take care of the other things in their lives.”

Many of the children her program feeds are latch-key kids, meaning they are left home alone all day. Volunteers will knock on the door and hear the TV, but no one will answer.

Every year, Snack Pak 4 Kids has doubled the number of children it has served — not because there is more need, necessarily, but because they have become better able to identify the need that already exists.

Snack Pak 4 Kids volunteers left the food bags on the door of an apartment after no one answered their knocks. Wendi Poole

This year, there are 30 different volunteer routes that crisscross the city. Volunteers are delivering food for about 800 children, and Snack Pak 4 Kids is providing weekend food assistance for an additional 150 children through Catholic Charities.

“It breaks your heart,” Kingman said, speaking about a route she drove earlier this summer. “It is just incredible the need out there and I don’t really care why. All I care about is that kids are served. As far as I can tell, if you’re 5 years old and you don’t have enough to eat, it is not your fault.”

This article was originally published by the H.E. Butt Foundation’s Folo Media initiative in 2017.