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!


CAMERON LAGRONE | THI AUSTIN | FIELD ORGANIZER

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!

SARA MARPLE | THI SAN ANTONIO | HUNGER FREE SAN ANTONIO COORDINATOR

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!

CHRIS RHOTON | THI CENTRAL OFFICE | CHILD HUNGER PROGRAM SPECIALIST

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.


AMY SATTERGREN | THI WACO | PROJECT COORDINATOR

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.

ASHLEY YEAMAN | THI CENTRAL OFFICE | SOCIAL MEDIA & COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATORAshleyYeaman

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 inside.kids 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. http://ow.ly/tZYU0
Photo 2 by Flickr user USDAgov. http://ow.ly/u06pY

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 hungervolunter.org and volunteermatch.org. 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. texascommunitypartnerprogram.com.

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 txhungerinitiative@gmail.com 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

Hunger Games: When the Odds Are Not in Your Favor

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The Thanksgiving holiday weekend is focused on spending time with family and friends—over the dinner table, racing through the mall for the best deals, or, as recent numbers reveal, at the box office. This year was Thanksgiving’s biggest weekend to date, with Liongate’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, taking the top prize. The film brought in $110.2 million from Wednesday to Saturday. (forbes.com)

Catching Fire picks up where the Hunger Games left off.  Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark have emerged victorious from the Hunger Games, marking the first time two individuals have left the game arena with their lives. They begin their tour of the Capitol and the 12 districts of Panem, a country formed in the ruins of what was once North America.

As the tour continues, resistance begins to form among the Districts against the controlling Capitol, and Katniss emerges as a symbol of defiance against the current system.

Before Katniss volunteered to compete in the Hunger Games, she struggled to provide for her mother and sister in District 12. She spent her days hunting and gathering, and haggling for items the family needs. But despite her best efforts, there were nights when she and her family would go to bed unable to ignore the hollow ache of hunger. There is a clear divide between the wealthy Capitol and the struggling poor in the outlying districts.

To add to their plight, the Capitol hosts the Hunger Games each year, requiring a male and female from each district, age 12-18, to participate in a fight to the death on national television. “May the odds be ever in your favor,” is echoed again and again—it’s the ultimate statement of irony. Seemingly, the selection and rules are fair; everyone has a chance for their name to be drawn, and each district is represented. But the game itself is grossly unjust.

America is certainly no Panem, but there is a different type of “hunger games” taking place in this country. More than 50 million Americans—one in every six people in this nation— are food insecure, struggling to put meals on the table. Many are working jobs at minimum wage. They take odd jobs for extra cash. But there’s still not enough money to cover basic needs.. Tough decisions have to be made, such as paying for electricity one month or paying for food. Governmental assistance and charities help cover some of the gaps. But as families and individuals start to get back on their feet, the aid is often taken away prematurely, and the struggles return.

Poverty is a vicious cycle. Too often food insecure families are doing everything right, but despite their best efforts they cannot break free. (See A Place at the Table for some poignant examples).  It’s a concept that goes directly against the fabled American Dream: if you work hard enough, you can support yourself, your family, and have everything you want.

Supposedly, the odds are in everyone’s favor to achieve the American Dream. It’s about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps in tough times, working diligently to achieve your goals. Put in enough work, and your dreams can be reached.  Things won’t be handed to you on a silver platter. You have to earn it.

It’s these ideals that cause many Americans to associate poverty with laziness. But what if, despite your best efforts, the odds simply aren’t in your favor to achieve success? What if the rules are fair, but the game itself isn’t?

I had a chance to explore some of these questions when I played a game of Monopoly as part of an exercise with some co-workers. The rules were the same as the classic game, but one small change made all the difference in the odds of winning.

Playing a game you cannot win

Shamethia Webb, the Waco Regional Director for the Texas Hunger Initiative, brought out the Monopoly board after reading about the game experiment in a journal article from Multicultural Education.

“Originally, the activity was imagined as a cultural competence lesson, a way to help teachers think and talk about race and privilege,” Webb said.  “It was also meant to interrogate one’s understanding of meritocracy and the long held belief that anyone can triumph over poverty by merely “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Webb thought the activity would be good for her staff as they work toward “creating solutions to hunger and poverty.”

The rules were the same as in the original Monopoly game, with each player receiving the same amount of money. But the players began the game at different, staggered times. Webb served as the banker and observer.

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I started first, along with another player. I had my choice of playing pieces, and on each turn, I was able to purchase properties. After a few rounds, I was able to put houses on many of those properties. But as the two of us played back and forth, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the others on the sidelines watching, unable to take part.

After about 20 minutes, the third player jumped into the game. She bought a few properties, but her opportunities were more limited because a majority of the spaces had been purchased. She often had to stop and pay one of us rent—fun for us, because it brought us closer to winning, but not so fun for her. She soon lost the bulk of her paper money, and it was clear she was becoming frustrated.

Another 15 minutes in and the final player began. By this time, practically every spot was taken. Most had houses, and a few had hotels on them. The player lacked motivation and soon lost most of her money. She eventually landed in the jail space, but at least she didn’t have to pay rent, incurring debt from the bank.

I didn’t win the game, but my co-worker who also started in the first round did. The group that begins the game first always produces the winner, according to the article. The other groups never really have a chance.

“It’s interesting to witness how helpless some of the players feel, how hopeless,” Webb observed. “They are less motivated than their peers who began the game before they did and who were able to accumulate an enviable amount of capital and money.”

Relating games to reality

In our capitalist culture, success is measured in terms of how much stuff we accumulate over a lifetime, and how our position in society rises. It’s why the capitalist model of the Monopoly game works so well to illustrate, not so much how poverty works, but how poverty feels.

“I think the game reminds us how difficult it can be for an individual or a family to overcome cumulative disadvantages like financial poverty,” Webb reflected. “We can play the game and perhaps understand why some people would opt to ‘go to jail’ or quit the game altogether rather than continue to compete in a game they know they will lose.”

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The reality is, while the American dream in theory is equal, disadvantages can keep individuals and families from rising up out of poverty and achieving success, even if they work hard.  And while assistance helps, it isn’t necessarily the ultimate answer to poverty.

“I hope the game highlights the fact that social equity requires more than just access to capital or an invitation to a starting line,” Webb suggested. “It requires a restructuring, an undoing.”

It will take time to eradicate hunger and poverty in our nation. But seeking to understand the complex challenges of poverty is the first step.

Can anyone be a winner in our society’s version of the game of life? Maybe it’s time to take a step back and evaluate the game, so that everyone has a chance to win. May we all work toward making the odds in everyone’s favor.

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

From the Conference Table Back Out to Our Communities

Melissa interacting with peopleTogether at the Table: Hunger Summit at Baylor University brought together anti-hunger advocates from across Texas and around the country on October 24-25, providing an opportunity to pause to assess the current state of hunger in our nation and to share and explore ways we can end it. Summit speakers and participants reflected on the successes that have been made toward ending hunger, while also looking ahead to the work that still needs to be done. It was a time to recharge and refocus on one unifying goal: to eradicate hunger in our nation in our day and time.

Among the many nuggets of expertise shared by the Summit’s esteemed presenters, a few shared themes continued surface throughout our time together, and we wanted to share of few of those here with our readers in hopes that you remain encouraged in your work to fight food insecurity in your schools, neighborhoods, cities and communities.

Hunger is a solvable problem—if we work together.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that the task before us can actually be accomplished.

“We do not have to live with hunger in this nation.” Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said. Berg encouraged Summit participants to view hunger as a solvable problem when working together. Hunger can be wiped out if the government and organizations on the ground truly work together to tackle the issue, he emphasized.

The need to continue building anti-hunger collaboration across sectors was a sentiment reflected throughout the Summit.

“With all of us being partners, how can we fail?” Audrey Rowe, administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA, rallied Summit participants.

Audrey_Rowe

Of course, progress takes time, and the work is challenging. We, as part of the anti-hunger community, must focus not on how our organizations differ but on the shared vision to end food insecurity in our nation. We must keep our attention trained on the people we are seeking to serve and support.

Hunger is a symptom of a greater problem—poverty.

Participants at the Summit were left inspired and informed, but also with a charge to look at hunger as part of the larger issue of poverty in America. Many of those considered food insecure are doing all they can to better their financial situation. But often, the desire to be self-sufficient is not enough when complications outside of their control come their way. Many are struggling to take any jobs they can, often with little pay, just to make ends meet. But these “non-standard work hours and low pay are a recipe for food insecurity,” Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and associate professor at Drexel University’s School of Public Health, said.

Individuals who are financially insecure know they need education to improve their lives, but the cost of that education would plunge them into greater debt. Although they may not wish to, many rely on government benefits, such as SNAP, WIC, and cash welfare out of necessity.

Many want to break the cycle of poverty. They want off of SNAP benefits. They want off of welfare, off of housing subsidies. They want a better, more self-sufficient life for themselves and their kids. However, there are complications to breaking the cycle of poverty. Often, when families work to earn more, they lose benefits that they still need in order to get back on their feet.

“What happens when families are doing what they’re supposed to do—earn more money to get off the system? Prompted families earn a little bit more, and they lose their SNAP benefits, their children are actually more likely to be in poor health and experience hunger. It’s kind of counterintuitive,” Dr. Chilton said.

“It’s time to shift the discussion surrounding hunger in this nation,” Audrey Rowe added. “The conversation shouldn’t be about SNAP. It should be about minimum wage and poverty.”

The power of personal stories: changing the “narrative of hunger”

At the heart of the issue and the statistics surrounding hunger are real people and real families. It’s the stories of their struggles that paint the most accurate, raw picture of hunger in America. These stories have power to create change. Celia Cole, CEO of the Texas Food Bank Network, said during her breakout session that TFBN would be implementing a story bank in the coming months and years. Dr. Chilton told us of the women of Witnesses to Hunger, who tell their stories directly to the media and legislators.

“When the women get together, they are a force—a force to be reckoned with. They are pure power. They are greater than the sum of their parts,” Dr. Chilton said.

Dr. Mariana Chilton

But the anti-hunger community needs to do more than listen and broadcast these stories. Those experiencing hunger likewise need a place at the table. We need to engage and partner with them.

“We need to change the narrative of hunger,” Kathy Underhill, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, said.”

To change the narrative, it’s going to take innovative strategies and risks. We must be willing to innovate and put ideas into action. “I think you get to decide what Texas will look like,” Underhill said.

It’s time to change the story of hunger and poverty in our state and in our nation, but we must work together to transform the narrative.

Trading knowledge leads to best practices (and more success) in fighting hunger.

To best serve those in need, we must discover the strategies and practices that have been proven to work well. Our hope is that the Summit continues to serve as a think-tank atmosphere for the anti-hunger community, bringing together individuals, nonprofits, corporations and government offices that are all tackling the issue of hunger in different ways and from different angles.

This year, the Summit offered eight different tracks on a variety of topics, including public policy, research & data, childhood hunger, health & nutrition, and more. Participants had a chance to explore the issue of hunger and how to address it from an assortment of professional perspectives.

“There was incredible energy in those rooms,” Keven Vicknair, vice president of Strategic Thought at CitySquare, said. “At least for us, it was a catalyst event that could lead to many new ventures.”

Thank you to all of the dedicated anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates who attended and/or presented at this year’s Together at the Table: Hunger Summit. We, at the Texas Hunger Initiative, are encouraged by your commitment to a common goal for the common good. Here’s to making huge strides of progress together in the coming year!

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Written by: Ashley Yeaman & Christina Farjardo, Communications Coordinator and Communications Intern, Texas Hunger Initiative

Photos by: Baylor University Copyright © 2013 (Melissa Rogers and Audrey Rowe) & Christina Fajardo, Communications Intern, Texas Hunger Iniaitive (Dr. Mariana Chilton)

Hunger in the Classroom

kids eating in classroom

A third grader sits at his classroom desk, tears streaming down his face. He isn’t paying attention to the lesson. “What’s wrong?” his teacher asks with concern. “My stomach hurts,” he replies.

The same scenario plays out the next morning, and the morning after that. His teacher, Shelly Lyles, begins to put the pieces together. “Did you eat today?” she asks.

“Well, no…” he says.

Hunger is a “huge distraction” in the classroom

Lyles has taught third grade at Fairfield Elementary School in Fairfield, Texas, for nine years. She still remembers that little boy distinctly, even though it has been years since he was in her class.

“He would never say, ‘I’m hungry.’ He’d say, ‘My stomach hurts.’ It was heartbreaking,” she said.

When it comes to childhood hunger, teachers and school administrators are on the front lines. Sometimes, the hunger is easy to spot, but often, it is difficult to see. It takes perceptive teachers. Of course, academic struggles can often be a red flag for hunger in the classroom.

“When children are hungry, they really can’t think of anything else. They can’t focus. They can’t pay attention. It just really affects their learning,” Lyles said. “They don’t have the best learning environment when they’re hungry.”

Research backs these observations. Children experiencing hunger are more likely to be hyperactive, absent and tardy, in addition to having behavioral and attention problems, compared with other children.[1] They have lower math scores, and are more likely to have to repeat a grade.[2] And these struggles continue from elementary school into junior high and high school. Teens experiencing hunger are more likely to be suspended from school and have difficulties working with other students. [3]

Jon Coker has been in education for eleven years. He taught for nine years before transitioning into an administrative role. This is his second year as assistant principal at Connally Junior High School, located in central McLennan County.

“I’ve taught in large, urban schools, small, rural schools, and suburban schools, and [hunger] is all the same.” Coker said.  “When they’re hungry, they’re distracted in the classroom, and they’re not ready to work. It’s a huge distraction.”

Hunger in the classroom isn’t a new problem in our country. But in a land of abundance, childhood hunger is unacceptable.

Identifying and confronting hunger in schools

Judy Weeden’s career in education spans more than three decades, as both a teacher and an administrator. In the last three years prior to retiring, she served as a principal. Thirty-two of her years in education were spent at China Spring Elementary School, in China Spring, Texas.

Weeden said that sometimes, especially in her early years in China Spring, she “just wasn’t as aware of how many kids didn’t have food as [she] should have been.”  Later in her career, she noticed that many kids weren’t having lunch.

“I remember at least one occasion, where a child was crying in the cafeteria. I went up to him, and I asked what was wrong. He said he was hungry, and I asked if he had a lunch today. He opened his lunch box and there was nothing in his lunch—nothing. He just took his lunch kit so people wouldn’t know he didn’t have a lunch.”

“I was just so upset. I asked him, ‘Will you eat a lunch if I get if for you?,’ and he said ‘yes.’ So I went up to the cafeteria lady and said, ‘Just charge it to my account.’ I just wanted to make sure this child had a lunch.”

Weeden provided lunches to kids on several occasions, making sure not to make a big deal of it. “It wasn’t very often, but it did happen enough that I knew there were some kids that didn’t have enough.”

Lyles also worked to close the gap when she noticed children in her class who were hungry, particularly the little boy who frequently complained of “stomach aches.”

“I would bring snacks, something like peanut butter crackers or a banana or a pop tart—just a little something to hold him over,” Lyles said.

Lyles said the boy would often hoard what he was given and also steal food from other students.

“If he went to the bathroom, he would get into other people’s lockers and steal their food. It’s hard, because they have to be punished when they do that, but it’s understandable when they’re hungry.”

Weeden suggests that behavioral issues and academic struggles have many causes, and often it’s not easy to pinpoint hunger as the source.

“Frankly, it’s a difficult problem. Sometimes kids just aren’t paying attention simply because they’d rather not be there—they’re tired. Sometimes they just didn’t take the time to eat early in the morning. It’s difficult to know where to draw the line. So you kind of have to dig deeper. It’s just not obvious,” she said.

In many cases, it takes becoming more aware of what’s going on in kids’ lives outside of school to get to the heart of the issue.

Fighting hunger through innovative programs

Free and reduced price breakfasts and lunches have helped tackle hunger and the negative side effects that go with it, but barriers still exist, and among them is the stigma of being “the poor kid.”

Programs like Universal School Breakfast and Breakfast in the Classroom, among others, reduce the stigma while increasing breakfast participation rates.

This year, Connally Junior High is offering Universal School Breakfast to its students for the first time. “Everyone gets [breakfast] now. There is still some stigma with lunch, because it’s obvious who has to pay versus who just goes through the line,” Coker said. “But the Universal program has done some to help alleviate that [at breakfast].”

Coker shared that he has also noticed a difference in punctuality and attendance.

“Before the program was implemented [students who struggle to afford meals at school] knew they couldn’t buy breakfast, so they were just straggling in. But now that they can get a breakfast here, I see more kids coming to school on time, either riding the bus or their parents dropping them off,” Coker said.

“Not having breakfast gets the day started off on the wrong foot. Getting to sit down and eat is a switch,” Coker said. “It signals ‘okay, we’re fixing to start school.’ It becomes a routine, and junior high kids really thrive on routine.”

Giving hungry children a chance to thrive

Eating can really make a difference in children’s performance at school, improving their academic performance, attendance, and behavior. These are the facts that are currently cited in studies and articles. Beyond just these numbers, it can also help a kid have a chance at a happier childhood.

Once the boy with “stomach aches” had his needs met with school meals and other outside assistance, he “became a regular kid,” Lyles said.

“When the fear of not having food was taken care of, his focus was then on school work. He made friends. Before, all he wanted to do was get something to eat. He wasn’t able to focus. He wasn’t able to carry on a conversation,” Lyles recalled. “But once that was taken care of and his physical needs were met, then he was able to move on to developing social relationships and to be able to do his work.”

Teachers and administrators don’t want their students to just survive but to thrive. Their job is to help students reach their fullest potential, and hunger stands in the way of that goal.

“Even if you weren’t concerned about how well they performed in school, you have to be compassionate about the fact that they were hungry,” Weeden said. “You want them to be taken care of like your own kids. They are your kids when you have them in your classroom.”

We at the Texas Hunger Initiative are thankful for the many caring teachers, like Jon Coker, Shelly Lyles and Judy Weeden, who have and continue to creatively confront and overcome hunger in the classroom.

For more information on what schools in your area can do to combat hunger in the classroom, take a look at pages six and seven of the Texas School Breakfast Guide.

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

Photo by: Lance Cheung, USDA

[1] Murphy JM, Wehler CA, Pagano ME, Little M, Kleinman RF, Jellinek MS. “Relationship Between Hunger and Psychosocial Functioning in Low-Income American Children.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 1998; 37: 163-170

[2] Alaimo K, Olson CM, Frongillo EA Jr. “Food Insufficiency and American School-Aged Children’s Cognitive, Academic and Psychosocial Development.” Pediatrics 2001; 108(1):44-53.

[3] Alaimo K, “Food Insufficiency.” 46. (See Footnote Above)

Purple Ties at Breakfast

Something interesting took place in Texas this past 83rd Legislative Session. Freshmen lawmakers started a tradition known as “Purple Thursdays,” wearing purple ties as a symbol of bipartisanship. Color choice for a necktie might seem like an insignificant subtlety, but the message was incredibly powerful. The ties were a symbol and reminder of their determination to work together — something that Washington has failed to accomplish. It didn’t take long before it wasn’t just the freshmen donning purple, and others were joining in.

I saw firsthand the goal of purple ties come to fruition when the governor signed Senate Bill 376. According to the Food Research Action Center (FRAC), one in four households with children are considered food insecure in the nation. This holds true in Texas, which has one of the highest child poverty rates (27.4%) in the country. Food insecurity is the term used to describe a situation where one or more individuals in a household do not know when or where their next meal will come from at one or more points during the year.

Senate Bill 376 would ensure that schools with 80 percent or more students eligible for a free or reduced-price meal must offer free breakfast to all students. Since the School Breakfast Program is federally funded, it won’t cost school districts or the state any additional money. The children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals, and those from families with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level[1] are charged no more than 30 cents per meal. Simply put, this means that hungry children in Texas have access to the fuel they need to start a successful school day.

When we let children go hungry in the morning, we aren’t empowering them to reach their full potential. Evidence suggests that children without breakfast show a lack of participation in school, behavioral problems and decreased academic performance. Eating a healthy breakfast can lead to a more nutritionally complete diet, higher in nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Additionally it can improve concentration and performance in the classroom. Individuals that regularly eat breakfast have more strength and endurance to engage in physical activity and lower cholesterol levels.

This summer I traveled down to Austin to see firsthand how the political process in Texas works. Jeremy Everett, director of the Texas Hunger Initiative, and Anne Olson, formerly a public policy specialist at the Christian Life Commission, testified in favor of S.B. 376. Committee members from both parties listened intently as Jeremy and Anne presented their testimonies and proposed that the bill wasn’t about partisanship, but about hungry children in our communities. It was stories like those of a fourth grade student who took extra food from the cafeteria home so his brothers would have something to eat over the weekend that moved members of the committee. Although statistics and numbers are essential for effective public policy, sometimes it takes the true story of a hungry child to put things in perspective.

I began to realize that our presence at the hearing made all the difference; we were a part of the conversation. Jason Sabo a non-profit lobbyist in Texas, is quoted with saying, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” And he’s right. By not showing up to support the ideas you believe in, you’ve given a reason to be ignored.

Think about the purple ties and the breakfast bill the next time you are feeling cynical about government, especially during the current shutdown. Skepticism is warranted, but there is no place for cynicism in bettering our state and country. With our world getting smaller and inequality at an all time high, we can no longer turn a blind eye to these issues. We need to keep thinking outside the box; the act could be as simple as wearing a purple tie.

The Texas Hunger Initiative is a nonpartisan organization housed within Baylor University’s School of Social Work. Our model for ending hunger in the state is research oriented and requires a level of creative cooperation and collaboration that transcends partisanship. Raising healthy children whose basic needs are met and laying a foundation on which they can build successful lives is society’s most important responsibility.

The Texas Hunger Initiative has launched a social media campaign to boost awareness regarding the importance of reducing the stigma around free and reduce priced meals in schools, particularly breakfast. By snapping a picture of your breakfast and tagging @Texas_Hunger using the hashtag #tweatyourbreakfast on Facebook or Twitter you can contribute to this effort. For more information, visit our blog.

Written by: Tariq Thowfeek, Public Affairs & Communications Specialist, Texas Hunger Initiative

Photo courtesy of: The Texas Tribune


[1] The 2013 poverty level, set by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services is $23,550 for a four-person household.