Why are so few children receiving meals?
There are several reasons.
Pockets of hunger
To qualify for federal reimbursement, sites have to be located in an area where 50 percent or more of the students are considered economically disadvantaged.
Four Bexar County school districts, including Alamo Heights ISD and Lackland ISD, do not qualify to serve. Four additional districts that are partly in Bexar County, including Comal ISD and Medina Valley ISD, also do not qualify.
These districts are home to pockets of hunger for needy children. These children would have to cross into another district to receive food, which is unlikely for many given the challenges of travel (see map above).
It is hard for nonprofits to serve these areas because they have to prove that there is need — something they normally do by referencing the percentage of economically distressed children at the nearest school. If the school doesn’t qualify, then they have to use census data to show there is still a need.
In large districts, the sites that serve might be concentrated in one high-need area, leaving other parts of the district barren.
(Note: Children can go to any open site in the U.S. to eat. If there are 20 hungry children in a district, and only two meals served per day, that is not a guarantee that 18 children are not eating. They could be crossing into another district, or even be living out of state for the summer. Those two children that are being served could be from out of state, or might not be considered economically distressed. It is impossible to prove exactly what children are eating and from where they are receiving the food.)
Rural and large districts
East Central ISD and other large or rural districts struggle the most to serve hungry children, according to our analysis.
East Central ISD is a rural district with a low concentration of students. The district covers 265 square miles and only sets up two feeding sites. Many children commute 20 minutes to the nearest school during the academic year. Ashley Chohlis, ECISD’s director of leadership development and administrative services, said that often parents don’t have the gas money to transport their kids to the nearest site in the summer, especially if the campus closest to them is not serving.
The transportation department provides pick up and drop off locations for parents who want their children to eat at one of the sites, but for many children the stops are still far from their homes and often at the end of rural roads with no sidewalks or overgrown grass.
North East ISD has a relatively successful program, but it still struggles to reach more children, especially in harder-to-access areas.
“There are so many barriers for participation in the program,” Sharon Glosson, North East ISD’s executive director of school nutrition, said. “We can be there. We can have food. It’s free. We can do all these things, but there may be barriers we are never able to address, like safety and security. If the child’s parents are at work and the kids have been told ‘you don’t leave the house’ — they can see us out the window with the meals, yet they can’t access them.”
Even small districts like Harlandale ISD — only 14 square miles with many sites spread throughout the district — report that students have trouble reaching sites.
Most parents work — many two jobs — and they are unable to take the children to the sites. Several directors of school and nonprofit sites said many of the children they are trying to serve cannot leave their houses because their parents have left them home alone to go to work. Even if a parent could take them to breakfast, they wouldn’t be able to pick them up, return them for lunch, and pick them up again.
Districts that have started offering programs during the summer, so that children can stay on campus all day, have had higher turnout rates. This summer, both Harlandale ISD and East Central ISD received money — from separate, independent agencies — to run camps. Both districts expected to see a higher rate of children being served this summer.
Why can’t parents just pick up the slack?
Rachel Cooper, senior analysis with the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), explains that summer is already more expensive for parents because of the higher cost for electricity, gas and child care. For parents who cannot afford lunch during the school year even without these increased costs, it is not practical for them to pick up the extra cost in the summer.
Can’t nonprofits help more?
It is often harder for nonprofits to reach students than it is for schools.
School districts have established sites throughout the entire area they serve. Each summer, nonprofits must identify the areas in need and establish sites. They also cannot provide transportation to the sites, like some school districts do.
Many nonprofits lack the infrastructure to pull off a summer food program. “One of the difficulties is that if you are a nonprofit you have to spend all this time ramping up to serve for this short period of time, then you have to spend all this time tearing down,” Rachel Cooper said.
The Food Bank hired 35 seasonal employees and leased 13 vehicles to meet the additional need this year. During the school year, the Food Bank serves an average of 1,500 meals per day. During the summer, the number climbs to 5,000.
District-sponsored sites served 321,964 lunches from 150 sites last summer. All other sites served 299,354 lunches from 230 sties. So nonprofits are operating more sites while serving fewer children.
Note that not all nonprofits receive funding through the federal government. Programs like Snack Pak 4 Kids raise their money independently, so their numbers would not be included in this data.
So where does this leave us?
Advocacy groups like FRAC and CPPP would like to see participation in the summer programs increase.
Advocates have suggested lowering the economic qualification for federal reimbursement from 50 percent to 40 percent — meaning sites that were 40 percent economically disadvantaged would qualify to serve, instead of the current limit which is 50 percent — but that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Rachel Cooper said.
Next year, Texas will participate in a pilot program that will give needy families additional help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), so that they will not have to travel to sites for food. This program would likely cost billions to roll out nationwide, Rachel Cooper said.
In the meantime, many nonprofits and districts continue to forge ahead with innovative ways to get food to children, including mobile cafes. These solutions are not permanent ones, but they are part of the patchwork of resources that schools, families and nonprofits cobble together to help children make it through the summer.
Part 2 will look at a how some San Antonians are taking the fight against summer on the road.
This article was originally published by the H.E. Butt Foundation’s Folo Media initiative in 2017.