Connecting the Dots for Clients

Each Thursday, The Shepherd's Heat food pantry opens its doors to distribute food to those in need in the Waco community. Along with their indoor storeroom, they also offer a drive-by service to those unable to physically enter the food pantry.

Each Thursday, The Shepherd’s Heart food pantry opens its doors to distribute food to those in need in the Waco community. Along with their indoor storeroom, they also offer a drive-by service to those unable to physically enter the food pantry.

This post is the first in a series highlighting the Community Partner Program (CPP). CPP helps connect Texas families and children to benefits to help them get back on their feet during difficult times. The Texas Hunger Initiative’s 12 regional offices help to recruit and support a wide range of nonprofit, faith-based, local and statewide community groups to become Community Partners, which provide individuals with the technology and know-how to access to apply for state benefits. Community Partners are making a difference, and we are proud to feature some of them here.

Shepherd’s Heart, a food pantry in Waco focused on serving neighborhoods in North and East Waco, began with a simple goal. “The thing that we started with is feeding people, and I think we’ve gotten good at that,” Robert Gager, founder and director of Shepherd’s Heart, said.

Today, the food pantry has become one of the largest food pantries in a 22-county area served by the Capital Area Food Bank in Austin. Shepherd’s Heart serves an average of 700 families each Thursday at its central location and delivers food weekly to 400 seniors who are homebound or disabled. Two resale shops help make the pantry sustainable. The clothing and household goods that are not donated are sold at discounted prices.

Along with food distribution, Shepherd’s Heart has a social services arm, Noah’s Heart, which seeks to help its clients in many ways, including applying for government assistance. Key to this work is As a Community Partner, Shepherd’s Heart uses to help interested individuals and families apply for benefits on site at its food pantry.

Just a few of the many volunteers at The Shepherd's Heart in Waco, Texas.

Just a few of the many volunteers at The Shepherd’s Heart in Waco, Texas. (L to R: Mary Lou, Pinky, Nick, Melissa and Orris)

Shepherd’s Heart also encourages other area food pantries and organizations that are helping the hungry to connect their clients to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as SNAP), Gager explained. “Everybody’s not going to have the capacity to have the staff, the computers or the space, to create a situation [to help people apply directly online],” he said. But organizations like these can use hard copies to get the application process started, he says, helping them through language barriers and other issues. “Then those individuals can bring their copy here, and we can key it in.”

As part of its vision, Shepherd’s Heart actively seeks to make an impact in the community by identifying needs and finding resources to meet those needs. Its latest project illustrates that vision at work.

Gager said that a study from Baylor University revealed that a significant portion of the Waco community was living in food deserts, places where it is difficult to buy affordable or high-quality fresh foods. Shepherd’s Heart has partnered with Texas State Technical College to create an Aquaponics farm to provide fresh produce to those in need.

Aquaponics is a food production system that combines aquaculture (raising fish, crayfish, etc. in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water). This method will allow for crops to be grown year round, with 10-14 harvests expected per year.

The project is just breaking ground, but Gager hopes that once it is established it will grow enough to feed around 2,000 people on a monthly basis. Half of the produce will be donated, and the other half will be sold at various price points to help make the project, and Shepherd’s Heart as a whole, more sustainable.

Shepherd’s Heart is an excellent example of how seamlessly and the Community Partner Program can be integrated into the work an organization is already doing. Utilizing quickly becomes a value-add for organizations. By serving as an access point for individuals to apply for and manage benefits online, Shepherd’s Heart helps connect people to important community resources and takes the services the organization already offers one step further. “We’re just connecting the dots for our clients,” Gager said. As more and more organizations join the statewide Community Partner network, it is becoming easier and easier for these dots to come together.

Shepherd’s Heart is an example of a Community Partner putting innovative solutions around hunger to work. To learn more about the organization, visit

If your organization is not yet a Community Partner, but would like to be, click here to find contact information for your local Community Partner Program representative. You can also learn more about the program and process at

A mural painted on the wall near the door at The Shepherd's Heart.

A mural painted on the wall near the door at The Shepherd’s Heart.

McAllen Summer Meals BUS 1

Texas ISDs Bridge Transportation Gap with Summer Mobile Meals

Waco ISD launched Meals on the Bus, a pilot mobile meals project, this summer.

By: Matt Chelf, Baylor University Junior and Share our Strength: No Kid Hungry Youth Ambassador 

“Thank you so much,” she said. “We would have no other means to get access to meals, but you’ve come this far and brought it to us. We can’t thank you enough.”

Many families across Texas, like the McAllen mother quoted above, are grateful this summer, because their children have access to food, which can be a hot commodity in even hotter months.

The Need: Keeping Kids Fed During the Summer

Claudia Fernandez passes out bananas to Texas City school district children during a lunch stop aboard the Nutrition Services' Sting Mobile on Thursday July 17, 2014.   JENNIFER REYNOLDS/The Daily News

Claudia Fernandez passes out bananas to Texas City school district children during a lunch stop aboard the Nutrition Services’ Sting Mobile on Thursday, July 17, 2014.

During the school year, over 2.3 million Texas children participate in free and reduced-price lunch programs every day. With the help of these programs, families can rest assured that their kids are given a nutritious meal while at school. But what happens when the school year ends?

Summer should be a time of recreation and relaxation for kids. But for many, the closing of schools means the start of a new challenge: finding their next meal.

In response to this, many cities across the state have implemented summer feeding programs, which serve to provide the same quality meals to kids ages 0-18 during the summer that they could have received during the school year. While sites are popping up all over Texas, participation is still low. Across the state, the amount of kids that participate in summer feeding programs compared to the number that participate in free and reduced-price lunches during the school year is only 11.9 percent, for a variety of reasons. Luckily, some school districts are beginning to implement a program that is drastically improving the number of meals served and access to them: Mobile Meals.

Texas City, McAllen and Waco are three ISDs that have implemented a mobile meals program in order to serve more children every day.

“Our office has found that transportation and other access barriers like the safety of streets, the ability to cross independently or leave the house independently and go far away have been cited as some of the main reasons the traditional Summer Meals model isn’t always a great fit for areas in Waco,” said Kelsey Miller, child hunger outreach specialist of the Texas Hunger Initiative’s Waco Regional Office.

Many meal sites are at schools, where the doors are already open for summer school. While these are accessible to some kids, the journey to and from the school can prove too long for many children to make safely on their own.

“There are going to be areas where in order to reach a school, the children would have to cross a major thoroughfare,” said Jacob Martinez, transportation director for McAllen ISD. “We also understand that during the school year, [the children’s] main mode of transportation to and from the school is the school bus.”

With no school buses relaying kids to and from schools, kids whose parents work during the day can be stranded within their neighborhoods or apartment complexes. Some children’s parents are in a position to bring them to a site, but the kids could still use some convincing.

“How many kids really want to go back to school in the summer unless they have to for summer school?” asked Alexandria Molina, director of McAllen ISD Food and Nutrition Services. “They’ll say ‘You’re gonna force me to come to school, just for meals?’”

Summer Meals sites are doing great work and are highly beneficial for many children. But for those with transportation issues or for whom it would be unsafe to walk to a site, the program needed to be re-thought. The solution? If you can’t bring the children to the meals, bring the meals to the children.

“Texas City is such a vast area, and the city has camps or daycares at certain locations,” said Gene Roblyer, director of school nutrition for Texas City ISD. “But when we looked at the map, there were a lot of areas, like apartments, [where residents] couldn’t walk to those locations. So we came up with the idea to try to go out to those areas and reach out to them.”

The Success So Far: Summer Mobile Meals Programs Accelerate Quickly

Aiyanna Wyatt, Tia'Kria Walker and Khadijan Wyatt have lunch on Texas City school district Nutrition Services' Sting Mobile during a stop on Thursday July 17, 2014. The school bus, converted to a mobile cafeteria, makes breakfast and lunch stops five days a week. JENNIFER REYNOLDS/The Daily News

Aiyanna Wyatt, Tia’Kria Walker and Khadijan Wyatt have lunch on Texas City school district Nutrition Services’ Sting Mobile during a stop on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The school bus, converted to a mobile cafeteria, makes breakfast and lunch stops five days a week.

Texas City, McAllen and Waco use similar models.  A school bus, which can either be retrofitted with supplies to become an exclusive Mobile Meals provider or simply borrowed from the district and staffed accordingly, travels between different areas where it would be unreasonable or unsafe for children to go to a stationary site.

The school districts collect data and find areas where there are high concentrations of kids with difficulties reaching other sites. Then, through a small amount of trial and error, stops are chosen and routes are created.

“One of the things that we’ve focused on is consistency,” Martinez said. “We wanted to make sure that throughout the summer we weren’t constantly changing times or changing locations. It took a little time to build that consistency with the kids so that they could trust that these buses would be there, but we’ve seen the numbers just steadily rise as the summer has gone by.”

The implementation of mobile meals has seen the number of meals served this summer go up across the board.

Texas City has doubled its numbers from last year, and the addition of mobile meals brought it close to completing its goal of serving 20,000 breakfasts and 35,000 lunches for the summer in only one month.

“Last June we served 13,292 students and this June we served 26,013. That’s for lunch,” Roblyer said. “For breakfast, last June we served 10,024 and this year we served 18,549.”

“Meals on the Bus,”  the Waco program which launched this June, served 300 children per route in its first week.

The success of the programs has come in unique ways to each city but has been surprising to all of them.

McAllen, which had a small budget to start this program, does not use the retrofitted bus system. A standard-issue, yellow school bus with an occupancy of 50 passengers arrives to serve the children, who eat in the bus seats. The program, which started for the first time on June 3, already has a system for when there are more children at the site than the bus can hold at one time.

“The bus rules say that the parents don’t enter the bus,” Molina said. “Just the kids get on the bus, the adults wait outside. It’s a safe place for kids to eat.”

The adults may not be waiting alone, though.

“Think of it like the occupancy of a restaurant,” Martinez said. “Kids are waiting outside, and once the others finish, they’ll get off the bus and the next round of kids will cycle in. We’ll keep cycling until all the children and meals are served.”

For a program with six routes serving 14 locations, reaching capacity on a 50-passenger bus is impressive. The lines aren’t bad for business, either.

“Seeing the parents congregated out there around the bus draws more attention and helps communicate that this is a bus that is serving meals,” Martinez said. “It really helps to create awareness.”

In Texas City, the surprise came not only in turnout, but in timing.

In Waco, a story teller entertains the kids as they eat.

In Waco, a story teller from the Central Library entertains the kids as they eat.

“The thing we’re happiest with is that the community has bought into it and are having the kids get up and come out to eat breakfast,” Roblyer said.

Texas City ISD originally planned not to serve breakfasts but, after experimenting for a week, found that they couldn’t stop. “The kids would meet us at lunch and say ‘See you tomorrow morning for breakfast,’” Roblyer said. “If they’ll get up, then we need to be there.”

The immediate success of the program has brought smiles to the faces of both sponsors and participants in the program.

Speaking about entertainment programs that the Waco buses have instated, Miller said, “the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve heard kids and families say ‘Oh, wow, this is really different.’”

Looking back, Martinez asks, “How could we not have done this? We know going forward that this is something we’re going to continue to do.”

The Future: Lasting Effects of a Nutrition-Filled Summer

In McAllen, signs advertise the program as more than just a meal.

When school starts again in August, Molina hopes that the school districts will realize the impact that summer programs have had.

“It helps our district,” Molina said. “[The kids] are going to be learning and playing and staying healthy, because they’re eating. They’ll be so much healthier when they come back in August.”

Molina shares that sentiment with Melissa Tortorici, who works alongside Roblyer as Texas City ISD’s director of communications.

“Our attitude is not that [the kids] aren’t our responsibility right now,” Tortorici said. “We think that it’s our responsibility to have happy, healthy kids. They will come to school better prepared and ready to learn in August if they’re eating nutritious food during the summer.”

Perhaps the thing that the districts involved in mobile meals so far are most excited about is the ability for this program to spread.

McAllen ISD, which strayed from the retrofitted bus model, wants to encourage other districts with a smaller budget to follow their lead.

“We’re excited that other districts are reaching out and asking how they can do it,” Molina said.

“I encourage those districts to follow suit,” Martinez said. “Find a way and make it happen, because there’s simply no downside to this.”

To learn more about this summer meals model and how your district can implement it, contact Gene Roblyer (Texas City), Alexandra Molina (McAllen) or Kelsey Miller (Waco). 

What Can Happen in a Year…Of Service? [Part Two]

In March, we said goodbye to several brilliant AmeriCorps VISTAs who fulfilled their one-year terms and left a mark on THI. Now we say goodbye to 10 more, each of whom embodies the spirit and work ethic of a VISTA. Each of them will go on to do great things, and while their service year at THI is over, their impact will be felt for years to come. Below, they share some of their favorite experiences from the year and what the next chapters of their lives entail.


Cady PenaCady Pena | San Angelo | Field Organizer

I loved being re-introduced to a somewhat familiar community, but in a new and very different way. It was humbling to see different aspects of my city that I had failed to notice years before. I was also able to work with some great community leaders, some of whom I had worked alongside in a previous career, ironically. It was great to have the opportunity to build on existing relationships and create new ones as we worked together toward a common goal. I met some fascinatingly driven and ambitious people this year, and the idea that they each wanted to assist me in our coalition’s hunger outreach endeavors was mind-boggling, but so appreciated.

What’s next?

I will be pursuing volunteer opportunities in my town, getting to know my neighbors and doing my own type of ‘outreach’, in between raising our first child and caring for my family. I have never had an interest in setting specific career goals, and I plan to welcome any random opportunity that gets placed in my path along the way.

KelseyHilton_LBKKelsey Hilton | Lubbock   Field Organizer

I perceive the biggest impact I have made on the community to be relationships I fostered. I enjoyed getting to know both stakeholders and individuals experiencing food insecurity. Bringing the community together was the most rewarding part of the job. THI exposed me to the nonprofit world and allowed me opportunities to dream big and try new things. I am also thankful to NYCCAH for the chance to work with people across the nation. Texas is not the only place where people are food-insecure, but if Texas can end hunger, anybody can, and the Texas Hunger Initiative is leading the way.

What’s next?

 I have accepted a job as a Web Application Developer for a small computer networking and data security company here in Lubbock. As a native Coloradan, I will admit that the West Texas Vortex, comprised of wind, friendly people and a great sense of pride, has sucked me in.

Jadi Chapman | Waco | Hunger Program Specialist

As a VISTA in the Waco Regional Office, I had the opportunity to focus primarily on the impact food insecurity has on the senior population and what some of the barriers are to seniors getting proper nutrition. Getting to speak with older Americans at the Waco senior centers, housing complexes and Meals on Wheels sites has been the most impactful part of my term. JadiChapmanThey have great stories and insights, and they always say how blessed they are, no matter what situation they are going through. This population does not get a lot of recognition or focus in the anti-hunger community, so being able to serve them was wonderful.

What’s next?

 I will be moving to Washington, DC, to serve as the VISTA leader with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

Maddy McDaniel and Max Castillo | Houston | Field Organizers

Maddy and MaxDuring our year of service, Max and I had the opportunity to develop important professional skills.  We learned about media relations, volunteer recruitment, grant writing, event planning, and building community engagement through partnerships.  We also had the opportunity to learn about federal benefits programs and the challenges clients face in accessing resources.  After his VISTA year, Max is hoping to work for a nonprofit organization in the Greater Houston area to improve the lives of the people in his community.  After my VISTA year, I will be moving to Chungcheongnam-do, South Korea, to teach English for a year before going to graduate school for an MA in International Affairs at George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

Stephana Sherman | Community Outreach Coordinator | Lubbock

Stephana Sherman copy

Wow, what a year! I have learned so much about my local community because working for THI has opened so many doors for me. I have had the opportunity to attend community meetings such as the South Plains Homeless Consortium and the Lubbock Churches Coalition for the Homeless and others. These meetings have taught me about Lubbock and given me the opportunities to meet local stakeholders and learn more about what they are doing in the community. From each meeting I go to, I learn so much about the town that I thought I knew so well.  While attending Texas Tech University, I thought I knew the ins and outs of Lubbock. When I started this job, I took off my rose-colored glasses in order to see what the needs were in my community.

 My most impactful experience as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Lubbock was realizing that what I am doing positively affects those in need. I am not a direct service provider, and because of that I don’t often directly help those in need by signing them up for SNAP or giving them a food box.  In the beginning, it was hard to believe that I was helping anyone. This view changed when I visited a Community Partner who helps hundreds of people each month sign up for or renew their HHSC benefits. How were they able to help that many people? By being a Community Partner and using the online YourTexasBenefits portal. That is a lot of people that are getting the benefits that they need! Indirectly, I do make a difference in my local community.

What’s next?

After my term is over, I am unsure of where life will take me. However, this experience has taught me that I genuinely care for those who need a helping hand and will continue to support those in need in any way that I can. I will encourage those around me to volunteer or donate to organizations that are helping people. I’ve met with local organizations who need volunteers or donations, and I know that they are good people trying to do good things in their communities because God has blessed them with a caring heart. I walk away from this experience with an open mind and a caring heart. 

Desmian Alexander | CPRI Outreach Coordinator | San AntonioDes Alexander

The most impactful experience came when another Corps member and I gave our last Navigator training to an organization we had been working with since practically the beginning of my service year. It was really great to see how they had come full circle through the process, and remained passionate about the program and what it could do for their community. They asked really thoughtful questions about how they could use CPP to best serve their clients, and at the end, were all too eager to give us hugs, thanking us for our help. It was really great to see how this experience will have long-term benefits for those in the community.

I am not yet sure what I will be doing since I’m still looking for jobs. However, whatever I will be doing will definitely be something that is for the public good.

Aleigh Ascherl | Community Outreach Coordinator | WacoAleigh_Ascherl

Although I could never pinpoint one experience, my VISTA term has been a whirlwind of learning from my low-income neighbors, those working in their communities across the state and the members of the Waco Regional Office. What began as a transition year ended up being so much more. As I move on, these experiences and lessons I have learned will shape my own work as I seek to continually think critically about what I am doing and who it is truly benefitting.

What’s next?

I am currently exploring job opportunities in the nonprofit sector.

Sonya Thomas | Community Outreach Coordinator | WacoSonyaThomas

Service as an AmeriCorps VISTA has reframed my understanding of domestic poverty as existing in a system context, which has in turn motivated me to understand how disease exists and operates in a socio-cultural context.  My work for the past year has shown me how the lack of access to resources and large-scale barriers presents serious consequences for individual and community well-being, but it has also solidified my interest in understanding the social determinants of health.  My VISTA experience encouraged me to ask questions about how government funding shapes services and the outreach work of nonprofit organizations.  It also raised questions about the influence of cultural understandings of gender upon illness, and how public health research can effectively be translated to inform policy and the implementation of interventions.

What’s next?

After completing my VISTA term, I’ll be moving to Houston to complete graduate work in public health.  I’m a nerd at heart, so I’m excited to be back in the classroom!

Compiled by: Matt Chelf , Share Our Strength No Kid Hungry Youth Ambassador, Baylor University ’16






Hidden Hunger: Seniors in America


By Jadi Chapman, AmeriCorps VISTA and hunger programs specialist for Texas Hunger Initiative – Waco

A few weeks ago I visited a senior center in Waco to learn more about difficulties the senior population of Waco might be facing. A man came up to me, shook my hand and said he was glad I was there because sometimes it seemed like the younger generation forgets about older people.

His statement struck me on a personal level. I hadn’t thought a lot about older Americans struggling for food or fellowship before. I had never considered that seniors could be struggling with food insecurity. Unbeknownst to me, there are many other issues contributing to whether or not seniors have enough food to eat.

According to Feeding America, 4.8 million Americans over the age of 60 were food insecure in 2011 [1]. Ten percent of older adults in Texas are at risk of hunger [2]. Many factors contribute to food insecurity among older adults, including a lack of a substantial income, the gap between Medicaid and the cost of living, limited income with specialized diets, and mental and physical illnesses. Each person is unique and may face a variety of these issues or combinations of them. One solution cannot fit all seniors, thus making food insecurity among older persons an increasingly complex problem.

Social Security is the main source of income for seniors

Older Americans often begin facing a lack of funds as they retire. Social Security becomes the main source of income for many seniors, but there is a gap between level of income and insurance coverage. Supplemental Security Income assists in bridging the gap between Medicaid and money brought in from Social Security. Older women, specifically, are the demographic that needs the most help. Because, historically, they often have not put in as much Social Security as their husbands through the workforce, they don’t receive as much Social Security unless they are able to use their husband’s Social Security benefits.

Jim Ellor. Ph.D., a professor at Baylor University’s School of Social Work, has worked for more than 30 years in the field of gerontology. “Two-thirds of women will drop below the poverty level if you take away Supplemental Security Income or Social Security benefits,” he explained. Ellor also noted that women live longer than men by about seven years, which leaves them as the population that typically faces living alone the longest. The dependence on social security can be compounded among older females, but it is a contributing factor to food insecurity across the demographic.

Lack of transportation is a major barrier to accessing needed nutrition

Transportation can be another complex issue for older Americans. As eyesight begins to fail and reaction time slows, driving can be increasingly dangerous for seniors and drivers around them. In addition, rising fuel prices make driving more and more difficult to afford. Unfortunately, public transportation is not necessarily designed to meet the needs of seniors either. Climbing on and off buses and waiting for them in the heat of summer or cold of winter is no easy task for anyone, much less older persons who may struggle with respiratory challenges or arthritis and other joint issues. Yet, simply making it to the grocery store is only a part of the battle. Navigating a supermarket can also prove quite taxing for seniors because of the tremendous amount of energy required to walk around a crowded store, pushing a heavy buggy.


As health deteriorates, the dietary needs of seniors increase

Beyond the affordability of food and complexities of transportation, seniors often have specific dietary needs, and specialized diets can be difficult to afford on a limited income. Metabolic illnesses, such as diabetes, impact what is available for seniors to eat. For instance, if a person with diabetes goes to a food pantry and receives canned fruits that include syrup, he/she wouldn’t be able to eat it because of the sugar content. Individuals with extreme diabetes may not even be able to eat grains because, when digested, they turn into sugar. These types of dietary needs are not always taken into account when thinking about food insecurity though they are conditions that many seniors live with every day.

Even if access to and the availability of diet-appropriate foods are not an issue, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia can also have an impact on a senior’s access to food. Individuals with these conditions may just forget to eat; even if they have meals delivered, they may put the food in the refrigerator and then forget it is there. Ensuring individuals have food is one thing. Ensuring this food is actually eaten presents an entirely different challenge.

Caretakers, who are usually seniors themselves, also struggle through this time with their Alzheimer’s or dementia patient. Caretakers place extra emphasis on the needs of the patient and tend to neglect their own nutritional needs. They too may need specialized diets and must take extra care about what they eat, but they are so focused on their patient they fail to take care of themselves.

Howard Gruetzner, education and family care specialist at the Alzheimer’s Association Waco office, stated, “Rather than stay connected to what other social roles, or social groups they might have, caretakers start relinquishing their own needs, which leaves them utterly on an island by themselves. Because of chronic stress they begin to feel their own health slipping, and if they are older, which most are, they already have chronic health issues.” Often, a spouse is taking care of a husband or wife, and he or she endures feelings of loss and abandonment as they take care of their loved one. Gruetzner reported that there is a 40-60 percent mortality rate among caretakers, as it is such a tolling task to watch your loved one whither away while putting your own needs on the back burner. Such a complex situation can easily lead to food insecurity for both individuals.

Moving toward holistic care for seniors

When tackling senior hunger, it is important to approach the issue holistically. The needs of the individual must be met mentally, physically and emotionally in order to increase his or her quality of life. Working toward prevention versus expedience is key to the holistic treatment plan. Gruetzner and Ellor agree that if churches worked within their congregations to reach out to their elderly members by creating programs geared toward them, it would support the overall mental health of the seniors in their population.

“Find the older adults themselves that can speak the language of nutrition and have them speak to their peers,” Ellor suggests. “What’s needed is peer support. Create a network of peer nutrition advocates that can actually get it right, then the older adults could get ahead.” Having someone talk to and fellowship with can go a long way in the life of a senior.


Make this year’s Older Americans Month count!

This Older Americans Month, we encourage you to support the seniors in your community by donating your time and/or financial support to an organization that is working toward providing seniors with daily access to nutritious foods. In Waco, we’re particularly grateful for work of Meals and Wheels and Friends for Life, among others who are working tirelessly toward that goal. Please support them.

[1] Feeding America: Senior Hunger

[2] AARP: Learn About Hunger.

What can happen in a year…of service?

AmeriCorps VISTAs do something almost counter-cultural in today’s fast-paced world of scurrying up the proverbial ladder to bigger paychecks and positions of power. They take a year–or a summer, depending on the program–of little pay, full-time hours and few vacations to put all of their focus and energy on making an impact in an area of need in communities across the country. They sacrifice in order to serve. And it matters.

The Texas Hunger Initiative (THI) has been the beneficiary of dozens of VISTAs over the past three years, all focused on eliminating food insecurity across the state. These VISTAs bring passion, energy, fresh insight and distinct skill sets to our work, and we wouldn’t have the widespread reach or impact without them. In many ways, they are the face of our organization—the ones entrenched in the nitty-gritty, hands-on, relational aspect of our work in communities.

Today is the last day of a yearlong term for five of our wonderful VISTAs, and they are leaving us with a parting gift: meaningful reflections on their year of service. Enjoy!


During my year as a VISTA,cameronteam I worked with Austin’s health department to conduct an assessment of food assistance programs (SNAP, WIC, Child Nutrition Programs, etc.) in the Travis County area. This assessment will be used to increase access to and participation in these programs. For this project, I had three undergraduate interns who worked with me to research and collect the information. I had so much fun working on the assessment, collaborating with the interns and writing a report of their findings. It was such a good experience to see a project all the way from development to reporting and know that I put so much of my time and effort into it. I am really proud of the finished product, and I am excited to see more people gain access to three healthy meals a day with the help of these programs.

I also worked with the Lockhart Food Planning Association to help with their Summer Meals sites. Each summer, the FPA hosts three to five meal sites to help offer free meals to kids in Caldwell County. They find the sites, coordinate volunteers and monitor the sites during the summer. It was a lot of fun to help promote and monitor the sites last summer and be in the beginning stages of planning for Summer 2014.

When you begin a job like this, everyone tells you to “fake it ’til you make it” and I learned that that is absolutely how it works! I encountered so many situations throughout my year (facilitating meetings, developing project plans and presenting to large groups) in which I felt unqualified or out of my league professionally. I learned that if you approach each of these situations with confidence and trust that you DO know what you are talking about, then people respect you and are so gracious when things don’t go as planned. And, after a while, it stops feeling like “faking it” and you realize you have become qualified and capable. If you are willing to try, you can learn so much during your VISTA year and come away with many valuable skills.

Even in a city as politically and socially active as Austin, it can be tough to identify the key people/projects to get plugged into that are really making an impact. Once you do, though, you are in! I loved making connections and finding out who is making a difference and how to partner with them in their efforts. Cameron3That’s why I was so happy to find the health department’s project and be able to get involved in the first year. I know that that project will make a difference in the overall health of the Austin community.

Any time that I got to do something for the first time – presenting in front of a large group, going to a meeting with key hunger stakeholders by myself, interviewing/supervising my interns, going to happy hour with key partners – was a highlight of the year for me. Each one of these felt like a professional/personal milestone and one step closer toward the professional woman that I want to be.

What’s next?

I will be attending the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin in the fall. I will be working on a Master of Public Affairs, studying social policy development and analysis. I guess I will officially begin calling myself an Austinite!


Throughout the past year, I’ve been working to build a coalition of community members willingSara to fight anti-hunger issues at the local level. There were so many times this year that I didn’t think it would happen or be sustainable or actually work. But now that my work is coming to a close, I can see how much of an impact has really been made. Our coalition isn’t perfect or all figured out by any means, but I know there is a good group of people who are passionate and eager to work together to see these problems discontinue. Even though I wasn’t always excited to work on this project, it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had and one that I will never forget. 

The most impactful learning experience during my time as a VISTA was having to live on SNAP. This wasn’t something my family members were exactly thrilled about, so it really pushed me to memorize the facts, and figure out why I supported it. It was also just a frustrating experience to see what so many individuals and families have to go through to get it, and then have to fight to make it stretch out for the entire month. I know we VISTAs are fortunate to get the full amount of SNAP benefits possible, but there was a month where I spent every last dollar of my benefits and fretted about making all of my food last. Not only is it tough for families to make the money last, but it can be pretty humiliating to use your Lone Star card at the register. This whole experience just makes me want to fight harder for reform and fight the stigma of SNAP. 

Coming into this year I thought I had a good grasp of the poverty issues in Texas and the rest of the country, but after hearing so many stories, listening to webinars, and reading article after article, I realized I wasn’t as knowledgeable as I thought I was.sara2 Hearing stories from people in San Antonio is what has stuck with me the most though.

One of my favorite memories from the year was getting to be a panel speaker at the Together at the Table: Hunger Summit last October. I got to speak alongside two other great women about our experiences with community organizing. Because THI trusted me enough to speak at a conference about my work, it made me so much more confident in what I was doing every day. It was also pretty cool to speak in front of other NYCCAH VISTAs that day, and afterward a lot of them told me how impressed they were with THI for letting a VISTA be part of a breakout session at such a big conference.  

Starting Monday, I will be transitioning into the Child Hunger Outreach Specialist position with THI here in San Antonio until the end of summer. After that, I will be attending grad school for a Masters in Social Work. I’ve been accepted into both of the schools I applied to, now I just have to decide which one to go to!


ChrisIn thinking back about the projects I worked on as a VISTA over the past year, a couple I particularly enjoyed come to mind. It was a brief, small thing but I had a lot of fun helping create a Summer Meals advertisement to play in movie theaters. I also enjoyed writing a blog post for THI.

Some of the most impactful learning experiences during my time as a VISTA happened whenever I got to hear Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, speak. He has a gift for getting people charged up about fighting poverty. I also learned a lot about how many different factors contribute to poverty and hunger issues, and how pervasive and comprehensive our solutions will have to be.

One of my favorite experiences was getting to participate in the Hunger Summit (the small part of it that I got to see, anyway). It was inspiring to be surrounded by people who are dedicated to making a change in their communities.

What’s next for me?

I’ll be on the corner of 6th street and Franklin playing the squeezebox. Bring your change! But seriously, I’m looking for work in a justice-oriented nonprofit on the East Coast. My wife and I want to be closer than 800 miles from our families.


This past week, I have been reflecting over my year serving at Texas Hunger Initiative as an Americorps VISTA. Unfortunately, I can’t quite say that hunger in Waco was eradicated because of my presence here at THI, but thankfully my team carries on that dream and strategic goal of ending hunger. I’ve learned and experienced so much. The way I see people, serve people, and work alongside people has been refined and changed. Image

For one, the language I use when speaking about those who are experiencing food insecurity or who may be living below the poverty line has become extremely important to me. I want to always be uplifting to those whom I am speaking about. I also want to be authentic, honest, and to divulge the reality of our country’s economic and social situation to people in a way that they will not only hear, but listen. Everyone is different. We see differently, we learn differently, and we speak differently. Everyone comes from a different background and has experienced life in a different way. But before I totally become redundant, because we are humans and (I believe) we were all created in the image of God, I am certain we all have the potential to come together and be unified. In this case, we organize around ending hunger. We can identify with each other, despite our different backgrounds, because we have all experienced some type of struggle. I’ve found most people generally want to help people amidst a struggle or hard time, they just don’t always know how.

One of the most important concepts I’ve learned this past year in anti-poverty work is to be strategic and effective in addressing the complex issues. I used to believe that passion was all we needed to eliminate poverty. Yes, I personally believe that love or call to do justice needs to be the driving force behind all that we do in this work. However, if we want to create a change in a broken system, it needs to be collaborative. The federal government, the passionate faith-based community, and everyone in between, needs to be unified to end hunger and poverty.  The strengths, resources, and assets in this country are incalculable—but our nation needs a reality check and a condition-of-heart check while we’re at it. Even more important than providing resources, we need to hear the voices of those who are experiencing food insecurity, because, as a brilliant, deeply-thinking woman once told me, “people are experts of their own experiences.”Image

Some highlights of the year?

With the risk of dog attacks and Regional Office bonding, summer and afterschool meals flyers were canvassed across Waco neighborhoods. I got to witness passionate, invested individuals fight hunger in the community of Marlin through commitment and collaboration. The documentary, A Place at the Table, was screened for hundreds of people in Waco this year through community events and the Baylor Line camp. (Seeing it four times was enough for me, but I’d recommend it in a heartbeat.) I highly valued the partnership we’ve had with the Waco McLennan County Public Health District. In collaboration with an MSW class at Baylor, the Health District will generate a report comparing the availability and prices of fresh foods in grocery stores and corner stores. For the qualitative piece of this ongoing food desert project, I got to hear from over 75 community members about their experiences with access to healthy food in Waco. I learned that the words “food insecurity” and “hunger” are not necessarily terminology to just be thrown around. For some, it is a way of life. One man told me that “if you mismanage your money one week—you just don’t eat.”

 My hope is that everyone who has been privileged to never experience the impact that poverty has on health, education, and home life will never turn away from the reality of poverty in our country. My other hope is that those who are experiencing poverty will one day be able to work hard, to earn fair wages, and to have a food-secure home. As I move on to get my Master in Social Work here at Baylor this next fall, I’m thankful for this experience as my foundation. Professional life for this kid is just beginning, but Christ has laid a passion for people on my heart since I was a child. I’m thankful for those I’ve worked alongside (my office mates, people in our community, and people across the nation). I’m honored to continue this work and to have the opportunity to spread God’s desire for those who are struggling to be cared for, defended, encouraged, and loved.


As the social media and communications coordinator for THI, I had the opportunity to be involved with many exciting projects. I helped create THI’s first-ever social media photo contest, called “TwEAT Your Breakfast,” and designed the program for THI’s annual hunger summit in October. Most recently, I designed the 116-page Texas School Breakfast Report Card. It was a huge project, but well worth it! I gained a lot of valuable experience in communications through my work this year.

Something I’ve discovered this year is that I’m passionate about using my communication and design skills in the nonprofit world. It’s so rewarding knowing that what I do can make a difference (even if it’s small).

What else did I learn?

Because VISTAs are given a small stipend, I used SNAP benefits during my term. I found them to be such a lifeline for me, especially when I had some unexpected  medical expenses in the fall. Having that experience has opened my eyes to how food insecurity Iooks in America. 

One of the funniest assignments I was given over the past year required me to enlarge a photo our director on my laptop, and draw hair on his head using Photoshop. He had a buzz cut at the time of the photo and there were some sparse spots, and we needed to use the photo for a website banner. :)

Where am I off to now?

I’m exited to say that I will be staying on at the THI Central Office as the social media and communications specialist! Looking forward to continuing to work with this wonderful team!

If you’re interested in joining the fight against hunger by serving as a AmeriCorps Vista for the summer or for a yearlong term, visit the THI website to learn more. (The deadline to apply to be a Summer VISTA is April 3).

Too Hungry to Concentrate: THI releases report to help Texas schools navigate breakfast program access

By Jordan Corona, Baylor University senior and journalism major

Hunger pangs are mean things.

Stomach it. Swallow it. Close your eyes. Try to block out all of your thoughts. At least when you’re thinking of nothing it doesn’t hurt as much. It’s hard though, because, right now, all you really want to think about is food. But you know that if you let your mind drift to thoughts about a piece of fruit or a hot meal, you’ll never get it back. Forget concentrating on what your history teacher is saying; all you can bear to do is think about nothing.

This inner dialogue is far too familiar for many students in Texas.6539882321_8e2410c99c_o

“When a child is hungry, they really can’t think about anything else,” said Shelly Lyles, a third-grade teacher at Fairfield Elementary School in Fairfield, Texas. “They can’t focus, they can’t pay attention. I mean, those are our basic needs in life: food, shelter and clothing.”

The Atascosa River and Bonita Creek intersect at the south Texas town of Pleasanton, about a 30-minute drive outside of San Antonio. Even in a town with a name like Pleasanton, many families do not have enough resources to be sure about their next meal or to know if they can afford breakfast the next day. Many times, not having enough manifests itself when children from those households are too hungry to concentrate on their schoolwork.

Today, nearly 65 percent of the students in the Pleasanton Independent School District qualify for and receive free and reduced-price lunch.

But the morning ticks away all too slowly for a child waiting for lunch—the first meal of the day.

“When you’re hungry, you can’t concentrate on what’s in front of you,” Keri Cooper, principal at Pleasanton Elementary School said.

Cooper began her work at the school more than five years ago as a counselor.

She said children often feel ashamed when they’re hungry in class. They feel separated from other students for not having enough to eat.

But things can get better.

Breakfast in the Classroom

Pleasanton Elementary, like the six other schools in its district, provides free breakfast for every student every morning, every day.

First and second graders at Pleasanton Elementary School like to eat pigs-in-a-blanket for breakfast. Every morning, two students from every class retrieve a rolling cooler with the class’s morning meals eating in classroom

“The students eat their breakfast while they listen to the announcements at 8:15,” Cooper said. Once class begins, cafeteria workers collect the coolers and any trash and take them away.

“We can at least be sure every student is getting two nutritious meals a day,” Cooper said.

For at least for most of a day, hungry students at Pleasanton Elementary have enough to eat.

The public school system is wide enough and structured enough to help make things better for children all over the state. What’s missing, by and large, are informed critiques of individual district practices.

Universal and Free

“Breakfast is extremely important because students who eat in the morning, are more active, participate more readily and tend to have few disciplinary issues,” Christine Sanchez, director for food and nutritional services at Pleasanton ISD, said.

The universal-free breakfast program in Pleasanton is three years in the works. Sanchez said the change from the former way of doing things went over easily.

In Texas, students whose homes are food insecure qualify for help affording lunch. Of those who need free and reduced-priced lunches to stay fueled during the day, approximately 45 percent partake in their school’s breakfast.

“It was more cost effective when all the students participated, given the districts free and reduced-price lunch numbers,” Sanchez said.

Part of Sanchez’s work pooling support from the proper school officials meant she needed to show how the district’s normal breakfast program operation could be better. She said most of the data she relied on three years ago, before she knew about THI’s annual school breakfast report, was sparse and had a very national scope.

In the past, there just wasn’t enough readily accessible data about school breakfast programs in Texas to license the sort of change on the sort of scale that would make the system better.

Texas School Breakfast Report Card

But a concerted effort to make that information more accessible just rolled off the press—for the second time—this spring.

The Texas Hunger Initiative’s Texas School Breakfast Report Card is a resource of explanation about Texas child hunger, successful breakfast program models and state-level data.SBRC Cover

The publication contributes to a dialogue about improving childhood nutrition using the public school infrastructure. It is complete with success stories and practical models to improve the current rate of school breakfast participation in Texas.

“Data can be a powerful tool to educate decision makers,” Kathy Krey, THI’s director of research, said.

The tables in the appendix articulate two very important objectives—where Texas schools are and where they could be in the fight against hunger.

But the concepts are pretty powerless printed and packed in their pages. The power to change the state’s school breakfast system for the better is a matter of understanding and response.

What is a right response?

Food insecurity is complicated. In the context of Texas public schools, however, breakfast is really a matter of access. What keeps hungry students from having enough to eat?

The Texas Hunger Initiative is a proponent of universal-free breakfast program models because they reduce access barriers, ensuring there is enough to make living better.

Pleasanton schools, for example, found that giving everyone free breakfast was more efficient than other distributive procedures, which inadvertently made a spectacle of other students’ need.

Ultimately, poor nutrition programs are only indicative of greater, more systemic problems. If we can maximize the school system’s infrastructure and influence against childhood hunger then better practices will come. For that, advocates have an obligation to the reality of the way things are in today’s system—both the inefficiencies and the victories.

And to that end, the Texas School Breakfast Report Card paints a much clearer and more complete picture of how Texas students are fed, and it continues to be a step in the direction toward making things better.

To learn more about what your school can do to overcome barriers to school breakfast participation in your district, take a look at pages 9 – 19 in the Texas School Breakfast Report Card or contact a THI Child Hunger Outreach Specialist in your area.

Photo 1 by Flickr user USDAgov.
Photo 2 by Flickr user USDAgov.

Living a Lifestyle of Service: 14 Ways You Can Fight Hunger in 2014

Martin Luther King Jr.

Last Monday, Jan. 20, the nation observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. For some, it was a day off from work or school. But for others, it was a chance to give back to their communities, as part of the MLK Day of Service. Volunteer organizations, churches, universities and other groups gathered to work on projects both large and small. Some of THI’s AmeriCorps VISTAs participated in activities around the state, from pulling weeds and painting piers, to clearing lots and harvesting crops.

Since 1994, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has been the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service, referred to as “a day on, not a day off.”

Dr. King believed in a country where everyone could experience freedom and justice, and he sought this goal through nonviolence. He once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’” In that spirit of service, MLK Day has become a way to honor his memory while also strengthening communities.

But what if we took it a step further? What if, rather than just participating in a day of service, we participated in a lifestyle of service?

What if “what are you doing for others?” became a question we asked ourselves each morning—something we strived to answer each day?

Often there’s something holding us back from incorporating service into our daily lives. We wonder how much we have to give—how much money we have to donate, or how much time we’ll need to volunteer. We wonder if our individual efforts will really make much of a difference. We think that the small acts of service won’t make a dent in the fight against huge issues like poverty and hunger.

But if we shifted our focus from ourselves to others, we would find that those small efforts could collectively lead to a significant impact.

14 Ways You Can Fight Hunger in 2014

Here are 14 doable ways you can get involved in the fight against hunger in 2014. Whether you have an afternoon, an hour, or just a few minutes, there’s something you can do to make a difference.

1.  Educate yourself on how hunger impacts the United States. There are many great resources out there to help you learn more.  See how hunger affects your area by using Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap. Another interesting interactive map from the New York Times illustrates poverty numbers based on census data. Here are two books that do a good job illustrating hunger and poverty in the United States: “All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?” by Joel Berg, and “The Working Poor: Invisible in America” by David K. Shipler. Prefer to watch a documentary? We recommend “A Place at the Table.”

2. Share what you’ve learned with your family,  coworkers and community. Use one of the books listed above, or another book focused on poverty and hunger, for your book club. Have friends over for a movie night and watch “A Place at the Table.” Collaborate with other organizations and groups to host a speaker to talk more about hunger in the community. Submit an appearance request form if you would like someone from our organization to speak at your event.

3. Join a hunger coalition in your area. These groups bring together people from all walks of life whom are committed to reducing hunger in their communities. They collaborate with local pantries and food banks, businesses, congregations, food producers, anti-hunger organizations and more to provide food security. Here are the links for some of these organizations in:  DallasLubbock, San Antonio, San Angelo, and Waco.

4.  Host a food drive for your local food bank or food pantry. Before you begin, be sure to contact your local food bank or pantry to see what is needed most. And while donations are important, funds go a long way as well. They can be used to purchase fresh produce, milk, eggs, and other perishable items. You can also start a food drive virtually, through this tool from Feeding America.

5. Volunteer at a homeless shelter, food bank or pantry. Organizations like these provide relief to individuals and families struggling to put meals on the table. These organizations rely on volunteers to help them provide food to the community. There are opportunities for individuals and groups. You could give an hour or two once a week, or plan an afternoon service activity for a group. Find an organization in your area and search their website to find ways you can help.

6. Help with a Cooking Matters class. This program, organized by Share Our Strength teaches individuals and families how to prepare healthy meals on a budget. There are opportunities for cooking and nutrition instructors, and also for those willing to grocery shop and manage classrooms. Visit Cooking Matters to learn more and find classes in your area.

7. Volunteer with an urban (or rural) gardening organization. These organizations partner with various organizations in the community to plant gardens to strengthen the local food system, improve access to nutritious food and empower individuals to grow food. Some of these organizations help start gardens in local schools, educating children about healthy eating and providing them with produce to take home to their families.

8. Find volunteer opportunities that match your skills and interests, including tasks that can be completed virtually. Two great sites to start your search are and You could translate promotional material into Spanish, help an organization maintain its website or design a flyer for an upcoming event. There are opportunities for many skill sets and ways to get involved without ever leaving your home.

9. Sign up for training to be a Navigator for the Community Partner Program. The Health and Human Services Commission’s Community Partner Program recruits nonprofits, congregations, and other organizations to be sites where food-insecure families can learn what federal  assistance they may be eligible to receive. Volunteers can go through a training session to become a Navigator and walk individuals through the paperwork. Contact one of our regional offices to learn more about the Community Partner Program in your area or visit www.

10. Advocate for a hunger-free community. Become more aware of legislation around hunger and educate others. The Hunger Warriors served as  advocates against childhood hunger. This third-grade class, led by their teacher Rachael Brunson, learned about the issue, created various projects, and ended their semester of service learning by rallying at the Capitol.  If you are a teacher, principal or administrator, service-learning projects can be a great way to advocate for this important issue. Learn best practice tips from this guide, published by Youth Service America and the Sodexo Foundation. Another way to advocate is to take the No Kid Hungry pledge to show your support in the fight against childhood hunger.

11. Donate funds to an organization working to end hunger. It doesn’t have to be a large amount of money—small amounts can make a difference. If your budget is a concern, consider one of these ideas: Request for your birthday that friends and family give to the organization of your choice. Forgo eating out or your daily caffeine fix and donate what you would normally spend. Or choose to donate a small amount each month for a year.

12. Share your story. Have you experienced hunger at some point in your life? Personal stories are a powerful way to show the affects of hunger, and they also can help inspire action. We are actively searching for stories and would love to talk with you. You can also write a guest blog post, and we can work with you through the editing process. Contact us at for more information.

13. Connect with anti-hunger organizations through social media. Social media can be a great way to stay informed about the issue and learn about ways to get involved, and discover conferences, webinars and other trainings. Find out about easy ways you can show support, like Dine Out for No Kid Hungry, where a portion of sales at certain restaurants go toward fighting childhood hunger. You can also interact with organizations on social media by liking, commenting and sharing. It can go a long way in spreading the word. Some good organizations to follow include: No Kid Hungry, Feeding America, the Food Research and Action Center, and Bread for the World.

14. Serve a year-long or summer term as an AmeriCorps VISTA.  If you really want to immerse yourself in the fight against food insecurity, AmeriCorps VISTA positions may be a perfect fit for you. You’ll be doing valuable work  for an organization while gaining useful skills. You will earn a monthly stipend, and are eligible to receive an education award (for loans/college tuition) or a cash stipend at the end of your term. We offer VISTA positions each year. Check out our website to learn more about year-long and summer VISTA positions.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but we hope it inspires you to think of ways you can get involved and make 2014 your first year of service on behalf of the hungry in our nation. May we all work toward living a life of service.

Post by: Ashley Yeaman, Social Media & Communications Coordinator, The Texas Hunger Initiative