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.

From Hungry Kid to Culinary Master

RomanColeyDavisChefToque

Chef Roman Coley Davis

When we think of hunger, images of developing nations often come to mind—high numbers of deaths from starvation and children with distended bellies. But hunger is also rampant in America. It’s just harder to see, an invisible epidemic. It manifests itself in many ways: the child whose focus wavers in class because he hasn’t eaten all day, or the family who doesn’t know where their next meal will come from, torn between buying groceries or paying the rent. Your friends, your coworkers and strangers you pass on the street could be experiencing hunger. But you wouldn’t know it just by appearances.

Roman Coley Davis grew up struggling with hunger in rural Georgia, but you would never know it if you saw him today. At 27, he’s a former combat veteran and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, with a degree in classical French culinary arts. He has worked in one of Georgia’s most celebrated fine dining establishments, Bacchanalia, as a chef lead, and he has served as a consultant for numerous restaurants. Today, Roman is a national chef advocate for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, participating in the Great American Bake Sale, Taste of the Nation events in multiple cities, Dine Outs and more. He is also a certified culinarian by the American Culinary Foundation.

But even with a sparkling culinary resume, Roman was quiet about his personal experience of struggling with hunger for years, he said, “too embarrassed to breathe a word of it to anybody.”  While studying at Le Cordon Bleu in 2010, one of his chef instructors, Lori Flynn, encouraged him to apply for a Cutting Edge Scholarship to attend the Conference of Leaders. The event is hosted by Share Our Strength in Washington, D.C., and brings together leaders from the anti-hunger field, including corporate leaders, political leaders, chefs, local and national activists and more.

Roman won a scholarship and attended with Flynn, not knowing what to expect. During a plenary session, the speaker began talking about summer meals and summer feeding sites. They spoke about how cafeteria ladies, bus drivers and community leaders were taking meals to isolated local communities that were food deserts. They distributed these meals to make up for the lack of free breakfast and lunch received during the school year. It was a happy success story, but it triggered memories for Roman, and something in him broke.

“I just broke down in tears. I’m in the middle of this session, sitting in the front row, front and center, wearing a starched white chef coat, and cameras are all around us. And I just broke down,” Roman said. “And that was when I first told my story.”

Roman’s story began in Douglas, Ga., where he lived with his mother, father and younger brother, Dusty, until he was in the first grade. His parents’ relationship ended in divorce, and the family of four became a family of three, with Roman’s mother struggling to make ends meet. Without a place to go after the divorce, the family moved in with Roman’s grandmother in Denton, Ga. His grandmother survived off of a meager pension from her late husband, who had served in the Navy during the Korean War.

Roman’s mother worked as much as she could at her job at Elixir Industries, a steel manufacturing plant in Douglas. “Any hours she could get she would work—overtime, nights, weekends, anything. But she realized rather quickly that it wasn’t enough. We had lost everything [in the divorce]. We had moved counties. We had to change schools. And the money disappeared rather quickly, having to recuperate quickly, and support two children, clothing them, and the task of feeding us,” Roman said.  They relied on federal food programs, including WIC and SNAP (then food stamps). But often, it wouldn’t be enough.

Roman with his young brother, Dusty, and mother, Regina.

Roman with his young brother, Dusty, and mother, Regina.

Roman’s mother worked at her full-time job while also taking classes at the local community college. She also worked odd jobs trying to make ends meet, like picking peanuts from the vine for a local farmer, making a dollar or two a bushel.

Her children learned to be resourceful as well as they grew up, planting a garden to supplement what they purchased with food stamps. They would also hunt deer and hogs, and they raised chickens.

In the summer, they relied on a nearby summer feeding site to supplement the free breakfast and lunch they would receive at school, which helped some.

For the school year, Roman’s mom counted on knowing that her two boys were getting breakfast and lunch at school. They qualified for free meals because they were below the poverty line. But frequently, they weren’t receiving them, for the same reason many kids go without those meals today: the stigma of being poor.

“I was too embarrassed to walk past all the kids who had their fast food meals or breakfast from home to be the poor kid that went to the cafeteria to eat the free breakfast. I would be starving, but lunch would roll around, and it was the same song. Lunch would be even more crowded than breakfast, and I would often skip the meal rather than have to wait in line and be the poor kid who didn’t have to pay. Our days began at 6:00 a.m. and ended when we got home around 4:30 p.m.,” Roman said. “I would not have eaten a single bite of food unless it was something that a teacher had provided to the class. This went on from second grade through my high school years.”

While the hunger didn’t keep him from doing well in school, it did make focusing during class difficult. “There were times when my stomach would just be growling so much,” Roman said. “That’s all you could focus on. It would drown out the voice of the teacher almost. It was so overwhelming, a gnawing sensation—distraction doesn’t do it justice.”

Roman kept this feeling a secret from almost everyone. His friends and classmates sat next to him each day, not realizing he was hungry. “Obviously I wasn’t dressed in designer clothes, the best of the best, like a lot of the popular kids were. I’ve got a crazy sense of humor though, and that took me a long way. But humor doesn’t cover up hunger, and a smile can only hide hunger for so long,” Roman said.

In high school, Roman found he could confide in his French teacher. “When he realized how dire the situation was, my teacher would bring an extra sandwich from home [for me].” Knowing that Roman would not have financial support from his family, his teacher encouraged him to look into the military. In 2004, he shipped out to basic training.

Roman during a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Roman during a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Roman served all over the world—Ireland, Germany, Turkey—but Afghanistan was his major combat deployment. He served as a counter-intelligence agent, specializing in foreign languages. He planned on getting a French degree when his term was up and becoming a French professor. But everything changed when he sustained injuries and contracted a food-borne illness while on duty. He was shipped back to the United States for treatment and began a long road to recovery.  He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury from the multiple blasts he was involved in. “I had to relearn how to talk, a lot of my motor skills, being able to walk and grab things. I had trouble knowing where I was. I even had trouble remembering how to get dressed.”

While overcoming these challenges, Roman’s injuries required him to be honorably discharged, and after his recovery, he couldn’t see himself sitting in a traditional classroom at a university. So he found a new mission to pursue: culinary school. He was accepted, and soon discovered his talent and passion for cooking. He was taught under Chef Lori Flynn, who connected him with No Kid Hungry. “They heard my story, and I was approached and asked if I’d be willing share it. And I did. We published a series of articles online about the struggles I’d faced and how my life came full-circle, and how I traded my military beret for my chef’s toque.”

Today, Roman commits all of his time to the No Kid Hungry campaign. “I’ve been blessed with talents in the kitchen and with a voice that can be heard and that people pay attention to, and it took me awhile to realize it and recognize it, but I’ve been given the blessing of a story, a testimonial if you will. Maybe I can be the change I wish to see in the world, and maybe it happens just one person at a time. I think that’s farther reaching than any million dollar [event] or fundraising dinner. It’s the ability to really connect.”

Roman during his audition for Hell's Kitchen, at an open casting session in Dallas, Tx.

Roman during his audition for Hell’s Kitchen, at an open casting session in Dallas, Texas.

Exciting things are in store for Roman. He was recently contacted by a casting associate from “Hell’s Kitchen,” a popular reality TV show that puts chefs to the test in weekly competitions. It hasn’t been revealed whether or not he will be in the cast for the upcoming season. But if he is chosen, Roman is well aware of the potential awareness it could bring to No Kid Hungry and hunger in America.

“I think that our problem [in solving hunger] is awareness and access to these kids. If I can take what was a negative and trying period of time in my family’s life, and share that story to where it benefits others—if one kid is fed throughout his or her experience in school, and able to get a fresh start each day with a full stomach, throughout the summers and the academic semesters, and make their way through high school and college—if one kid is affected by me being able to share my story, then that’s worth it all.”

We highlight Roman’s story as part of our four-week breakfast awareness campaign, TwEAT Your Breakfast. Every child deserves access to a nutritious start to the day. Though many schools are implementing innovative programs, barriers still exist. Raise awareness and #tweatyourbreakfast to @Texas_Hunger through Oct. 11. (See this blog for more information.)

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

Photos courtesy of: Roman Coley Davis

TwEAT Your Breakfast. Create awareness.

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It’s back-to-school time! Heading back to the classroom provides a routine for students and their parents, but it also marks the start of a busier schedule. Gone are the carefree days of summer—it’s back to homework and school events, early mornings and late evenings.

While early mornings can be especially hectic, many of us realize the importance of fueling up with breakfast each day before heading out the door. Whether we choose to eat breakfast is up to us.

But many children don’t have a choice.

In a recent national survey from Share Our Strength, more than 1,000 K-8 public school teachers expressed increasing concern about hunger in their classrooms. Seventy-three percent said they teach students who come to school hungry because there isn’t enough food at home.

A teacher from Florida who took the survey pulled one of her students aside when she noticed his continuous lack of focus in class.

“He began to cry and told me he couldn’t help it, he was just so hungry. It turns out the only meal he ate every day was his free lunch at school. His family couldn’t afford breakfast or dinner.”

In the 2010-2011 school year, more than 20 million students nationwide ate a free or reduced-price lunch at school, according to Share Our Strength.  But less than half of those students, 9.8 million, had a free or reduced-price breakfast.  In Texas, only 59.7 percent of students who ate lunch also had breakfast at school.

What accounts for the difference? There are many reasons, but research shows that one of the greatest barriers to School Breakfast participation is the stigma attached to the program. Eating breakfast at school is seen as something only the students in poverty do.

This is why alternative models to the traditional school breakfast program are so important, including the Universal Breakfast Program, Breakfast in the Classroom, and Grab n’ Go Breakfast.  And these programs are proving to be a success.  In the 2012-2013, the number of students eating school breakfast daily jumped to 13.5 percent nationwide.

But it’s still not enough. There are still millions of children in Texas and across the nation who are not starting their day with the needed nutrients. They are going throughout the school day lacking the energy and focus to tackle their studies, and it’s hurting their academic achievement—the stepping stone, in many cases, to a better future.

Help us bring awareness to the importance of breakfast by participating in our TwEAT Your Breakfast Photo Contest from September 11 to October 11. We want to see what you’re fueling up with in the mornings! Maybe it’s a yogurt parfait on-the-go, a breakfast burrito at your favorite food truck, a leftover slice of cold pizza, or a gourmet meal. Whatever’s on your plate, snap a photo and tweet it to us! (#tweatyourbreakfast @Texas_Hunger)

The contest runs for four weeks, and you can enter as many times as you want.  Four photos will be recognized each Friday (starting September 20) on our social media outlets, and of those, three photos will be specially recognized on our blog (with a mini-feature on each of our winners) at the end of the contest. But more importantly, you’ll be helping bring awareness to the importance of making breakfast accessible to all students.

Stay tuned! Along with the photo contest, we’ll be sharing breakfast facts on our social media outlets throughout the month, and posting blogs about access to breakfast for children each week.

Entering the contest is easy, and you can check out the full contest terms and conditions below. What will you TwEAT for breakfast?

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

How to enter:

1.   Use Twitter to share a photo of what you’re having for breakfast. (Let creativity rule!)

2.   Tag your post with the hashtag #tweatyourbreakfast and tweet to @Texas_Hunger.

3.   Follow the Texas Hunger Initiative on Twitter (@Texas_Hunger).

Entries will be judged on creativity by the Texas Hunger Initiative’s communications team.  Four photos will be highlighted on our social media outlets each Friday. Of those photos highlighted, three will be chosen for special recognition on our blog at the end of the contest period.

TwEAT Your Breakfast Photo Contest Terms and Conditions

By entering the TwEAT Your Breakfast Photo Contest, participants agree to the Terms and Conditions listed below.

1.     The contest is open to any individual 13 years of age or older at the time of entry.

2.     The contest begins on September 11, 2013, and ends on October 11, 2013.

3.     Contestants may submit any number of photos, so long as each is different in nature and of their own composition.

4.     Entries must be viewable to the public and tagged with the contest hashtag (#tweatyourbreakfast). They must also be tweeted to (@Texas_Hunger).

5.     Contestants must be Texas Hunger Initiative Twitter (@Texas_Hunger) followers.

6.     Each week, four photos will be chosen to be highlighted on the Texas Hunger Initiative’s social media outlets. After the contest ends, three photos will be chosen, which will be featured on the Texas Hunger Initiative’s WordPress blog.

7.     The owners of the three photos chosen will be contacted via Twitter for a brief interview to accompany their winning photo on the blog.

8.     Winners agree to have his/her entry featured on http://www.texashunger.org and THI’s other social media outlets (including but not limited to Twitter, Facebook & our WordPress blog) and used for either educational or promotional purposes in the future.

9.     Contest is not sponsored or associated with Twitter. Contestants agree to all Twitter terms of service.

 

 

 

Making food a human right

From A Place at the Table: Barbie Izquierdo and her children prepare a meal together in their family home.

From A Place at the Table: Barbie Izquierdo and her children prepare a meal together in their family home.

Nearly all of the 178 seats in the screening room at Baylor’s Mayborn Museum Complex were filled on the afternoon of June 10th as community leaders and interested citizens gathered to watch A Place at the Table, a new documentary film directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush—makers of Food, Inc.  It examines the problem of food insecurity in the United States, and the inherent paradox that 50 million Americans regularly go hungry even though the U.S. produces and imports more than enough food to prevent hunger.  The event also featured a panel discussion with Cheryl Pooler, a social worker and homeless liaison for Waco ISD, Dr. Gaynor Yancey, professor at the Baylor School of Social Work, and Matt Hess, executive director of World Hunger Relief, Inc.  Shamethia Webb, the regional director for the Texas Hunger Initiative – Waco office, moderated.

A Place at the Table shows the daily lives of families suffering from hunger.  Barbie lives in Philadelphia with two young children, one of whom suffers from developmental difficulties due to malnutrition. She struggles to provide enough for them to eat on her part-time pay and has been forced to put off attending college because she cannot manage without this meager wage.  In Collbran, Colorado, fifth-grader Rosie lives in a three-generation home where she and her siblings sleep on the floor of a combination pantry/laundry room and depend on her teacher and the local church to provide her family with enough to eat.  In rural Mississippi, Tremonica, age eight, is obese because her mother only has access to low-quality processed food, as the nearest market selling fresh produce is over 60 miles away.

Interspersed within the stories was a narrative just as outrageous as the hunger these people were experiencing—that of a catastrophically broken food economy.  As noted in the film, the expansion of federal nutrition and anti-poverty programs in the mid-1970s nearly succeeded in eliminating domestic food insecurity.  By 1980, however, changes in agricultural policy—specifically changes in farm subsidy payments—created a radical shift in the flow of tax benefits to farms.  The government began diverting billions of dollars in crop subsidies to companies that grew ingredients for processed foods, which in turn resulted in a steep decline in prices for these nutritionally inferior yet readily available products.  In the meantime, the loss of subsidies for growers of less-profitable fruits and vegetables caused prices to increase.  The trend continues in the Farm Bill currently being debated in Congress, with a majority of subsidies going to corporate producers of feed crops and processed food ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, wheat, and sugar.

At the same time that food policy was changing, Congress began large cuts to the social safety net.  Millions of households were dropped from government assistance and had to struggle even harder to avoid going hungry while the national attitude towards the poor became increasingly hostile and the stigma of being on government assistance grew increasingly negative.

Indeed, it seems that the greatest barrier to re-examining and re-implementing anti-poverty and anti-hunger policies is the assumption that poverty is necessarily a result of moral failure.  Whenever the issue of expanding the social safety net is brought up, two rebuttals are often employed: cost* and the anxiety that someone might get assistance that we don’t think they deserve.

The myth that people can comfortably sponge off of public assistance was given a stark debunking in the film: the average SNAP benefit is around $4.25 per person per day.  Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts shared his story of taking the SNAP Challenge—an initiative begun by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) that asks elected officials to live on the average allotment families receive in SNAP benefits; in just one week he found himself struggling to function on the pittance of calories that $4.25 per day can buy.  Add to this the stress of having school-age children and working physically demanding jobs, and you have a recipe for malnutrition and failing health.  And yes, these people are working: according to a USDA report, in 2009 85% of food-insecure households had a working adult (this does not account for households where all members are retired or disabled).

But can’t private charity solve the problem?  A Place at the Table shows how unrealistic this expectation is.  While community groups and religious centers have an important role to play, they lack the resources and infrastructure to meet widespread need.  Since 1980, the U.S. has gone from having 400 food pantries to 40,000 yet this expansion has failed to slow the growth of food insecurity.  These organizations often struggle to maintain resources and volunteers sufficient to combat hunger in their communities.  The film introduces us to a pastor in Collbran, Colorado who drives out of town twice a week to get four pallets of groceries from the food bank (as much as his trailer will carry), which is given to needy families in the area, and it still isn’t enough.  Local charitable action is essential, but charitable institutions will be fully able to meet the high level of need when in collaboration with generously-funded federal nutrition programs.

So why does a nation as wealthy as ours, that produces as much food as we do, continue to put forward policies that subvert programs like SNAP that are known to be effective?  The problem is two-fold: ideology and empathy.  We are in love with the myth of the self-made man or woman.  We praise those who succeed in spite of circumstance, and when we find such a person we take him or her as a rule rather than an exception.  In truth, such people are exceptions.  But this devotion to a meritocratic ideal is a defense mechanism used to protect us from the unpleasant truth: “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  We assume our own innocence and refuse our neighbors the same courtesy.  We use phantoms like the “welfare queen”—an archetype without a name or a face—to avoid being affected by the reality of human suffering.  We want to believe the worst about the poor and the hungry because the only thing that stands between them and us is luck; the world does not automatically reward hard work and responsibility like a cosmic vending machine.  We are afraid to acknowledge that but for a minor change in circumstance, we could be the person working endlessly to provide for our families and have nothing to show for it but an empty larder and a bare table.

This is why events like this screening are so important: they force us to put a face to the symbols, to stop talking about abstract ideas and instead talk about people with names and families and stories.  And they let us know that we have the power to change how our food industry works.  About a hundred and fifty people in Waco allowed themselves to be affected by the stories of Barbie, Rosie, Tremonica, and others.  Policy-makers like Jim McGovern and all those who have taken the SNAP Challenge allowed themselves to be affected.  And they will take those stories with them into their neighborhoods and workplaces and the chambers of Congress, more aware than ever that, as CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt said in the 1968 documentary Hunger in America that once spurred us to put an end to food insecurity, “The most basic human need must become a human right.”

* The cost argument fails, as SNAP has been shown to be an economic stimulus.  An independent study by Moody’s Analytics found that every dollar of SNAP benefits spent generates $1.73 in GDP growth.

Written by: Chris Rhoton, Child Hunger Program Specialist, Texas Hunger Initiative

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

An Exciting Week for THI: Legislation Moves Forward, Kids’ Voices are Heard

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Children from Elsa England Elementary in Round Rock and Travis Heights Elementary in Austin were able to meet Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. shortly after the Breakfast Bill passed the Texas House of Representatives.

It has been an exciting week for the Texas Hunger Initiative. Last Thursday, Senate Bill 376, the “Breakfast Bill,” passed the Texas House of Representatives and now moves forward to the governor’s office. And yesterday, House Bill 749 passed through the Senate Committee on Government Organization with a unanimous vote. In this bill, it is proposed that the Texas Hunger Initiative and the Texas Department of Agriculture would work together on a five-year plan to increase participation in summer food programs.

It really is history in the making.  These two bills have the potential to feed hundreds of thousands of hungry children throughout the state.

Children from Elsa England Elementary in Round Rock and Travis Heights Elementary in Austin witnessed history unfold last week with the announcement of SB 376 passing the House, as they stood on the steps of the State Capitol for their Rally Against Childhood Hunger.

Funded by the Sodexo grant, Elsa England Elementary third-graders have been tackling childhood hunger all year, raising funds, giving presentations to younger students, and even writing persuasive letters to President Obama.

For their teacher and primary organizer of the project, Rachael Brunson, childhood hunger is an issue that hits close to home.

“There were many, many days when I did not have enough to eat,” Brunson said in an interview with TV station KXAN in Austin. “When you don’t have enough to eat, you find it hard to concentrate on anything except where you’re going to get your next meal.”

Childhood hunger is a huge problem in Texas today, affecting one in four Texas children, according to a study from Feeding America.

Ricky, a student at Travis Heights Elementary, brings a face to these statistics.

“I myself have suffered from hunger,” he said during the rally, standing on top of a crate to reach the microphone. “It affected my grades and I went all the time not knowing where my next meal would come from. I don’t want any other kids to suffer like I did.”

Because of stories like Ricky’s, childhood hunger became the issue the students rallied around.  Elsa England students partnered with students from Travis Heights Elementary to prepare for their rally at the Capitol, months before the event. They rehearsed chants, brainstormed T-shirt designs, and created colorful posters and banners.

Students came to the Capitol ready for their rally, armed with chants like “Kids should never be famished!” and posters urging the public to “Get involved now!”

Speakers included Jeremy Everett, director of the Texas Hunger Initiative, Joanna Linden, CDO of Capitol Area Food Bank, and Dr. Jesús H. Chávez, superintendent of Round Rock ISD.

Linden said her work puts her directly in the front lines of hungry children, and shows her how crucial the issue is in Texas.

“I get to see many different faces of hunger every single day, and as a mom of two daughters of my own, the thing that disturbs me the most is the face of a hungry child. Two out of every five of our clients are kids,” Linden said. “Food is the fuel for children to learn and develop every single day. Hunger limits a child’s potential and their opportunity to grow.”

Linden was inspired by the enthusiasm of the students, teachers and all involved in the rally.

“They inspire the work that we do to make sure that kids are fed. Through partnerships, through people getting together, we truly are able to make a difference,” Linden said.

After the Breakfast Bill passed, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. spoke to the students on how crucial the legislation will be for children across Texas.

“Studies over and over again have indicated to us that if a child eats a nutritious meal, then he or she will learn more, and that’s what we want,” Lucio, Jr. said. “You will be our leaders of tomorrow, and we want you to be healthy. We want a healthy workforce, healthy families, and we want all of you to lead us in the right direction—our state, our country, our world.”

Round Rock Superintendent Chávez hopes the rally, and the hunger project, will have long-term impact on students.

“It shows them the difference that they individually can make, and the power of a group and working together,” he said.

For Daniel, a student at Elsa England Elementary, the project and rally have made him more aware of issues affecting children in his community and around the world.

“I’ve loved everything we’ve done. I knew it would make me a better person, because it’s a big problem that I’m solving,” he said.

Daniel has plans to work in a career where he can continue the fight against hunger when he grows up, in a “place where there’s a lot of hungry kids.”

But let’s hope he doesn’t have to do so. Let’s hope that our work, the work of similar organizations, and Texas legislation can wipe hunger off the map, so students like Daniel can live in a state where childhood hunger doesn’t exist.

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

Photo by: Charis Dietz, Director of Communications, Texas Hunger Initiative