Texas ISDs Bridge Transportation Gap with Summer Mobile Meals

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

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

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

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

The Need: Keeping Kids Fed During the Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Success So Far: Summer Mobile Meals Programs Accelerate Quickly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The adults may not be waiting alone, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future: Lasting Effects of a Nutrition-Filled Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cady PenaCady Pena | San Angelo | Field Organizer

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

What’s next?

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

KelseyHilton_LBKKelsey Hilton | Lubbock   Field Organizer

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

What’s next?

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

Jadi Chapman | Waco | Hunger Program Specialist

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

What’s next?

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

Maddy McDaniel and Max Castillo | Houston | Field Organizers

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

Stephana Sherman | Community Outreach Coordinator | Lubbock

Stephana Sherman copy

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

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

What’s next?

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

Desmian Alexander | CPRI Outreach Coordinator | San AntonioDes Alexander

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

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

Aleigh Ascherl | Community Outreach Coordinator | WacoAleigh_Ascherl

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

What’s next?

I am currently exploring job opportunities in the nonprofit sector.

Sonya Thomas | Community Outreach Coordinator | WacoSonyaThomas

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

What’s next?

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

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