Children’s nutritional needs do not take a summer break. This summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service partnered with the Texas Department of Agriculture and Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative to help keep Texas children in several low-income rural areas fed during the summer through a summer meals demonstration project.
The USDA-Baylor summer meals demonstration project, called Meals-to-You, was launched this summer in five counties – Henderson, Leon, Concho, Kimble and Upton Counties – covering 20 school districts in Texas where traditional congregate summer meals programs were either not offered or not accessible for all or part of the summer.
Through the Meals-to-You demonstration project, meals were mailed directly to the residences of consenting families for students who are eligible for free-or reduced-price meals. Each eligible child received a weekly box, which contained five breakfast meals, five snacks and five lunches/suppers. These boxes included quality items and were intended to supplement family food resources throughout the summer.
Today, I visited Eustace, Texas, in Henderson County, and met with families, school officials and community leaders to discuss how the meals helped supplement their children this summer. As I sat in the Eustace Primary School cafeteria, one-by-one parents shared stories of the challenges they have faced in the past when it comes to providing meals for their children during the summer.
Julie Estes, a Eustace teacher and mother of six children, shared how the program helped cut her grocery bill in half. She typically spends an average of $1,200 a month, but this summer she only spent about $600 a month because the Meals-to-You program offset her average grocery budget.
While Eustace ISD has offered the summer feeding program for the past several years, the biggest obstacle for their parents and students is transportation to the cafeteria. Some of the transportation barriers include living more than 50 miles away from the school, driving a car with no air conditioning across town or coordinating transportation for someone to pick-up and drive their children to the local school to get a meal.
This summer was different in Eustace, and for some it felt more like the holidays, where UPS drivers delivered the boxes of food directly to the participants’ door. Eustace Child Nutrition Director Carolyn Davis was instrumental in promoting the program and shared how it even helped her family. She has eight grandchildren and each one of them received a box every week. She said for her grandchildren it was “like Christmas” when the boxes arrived and each child grabbed a box to claim as their own.
When asked was it difficult to sign up for the program, Jamie Garver, a Eustace parent, shared it wasn’t difficult at all and she took on the role of helping other families register for the program by sharing the registration link, visiting homes to help families fill out the application online, and she even allowed families without Internet to use her personal phone to register for the program.
As the meeting came to a close, I took a moment to look around the cafeteria to take it all in and saw teachers, the mayor, the chief of police, a local pastor, members of the school board and parents. It truly was a visual demonstration of how we all play a role in supporting our rural communities. It was also apparent that we must continue to implement innovative summer food strategies like Meals-to-You to help families ensure their children have nutritious food to eat during the summer months.
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Food and Nutrition Service, and while our programs have evolved over the years, we know there is still more work to be done. And together we can do it one life, one person, one meal at a time.