Texas is # 1! (in child hunger)

By Enrique Lopetegui

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Texas takes pride in being a most opulent state, but recent figures released by the USDA indicate we live in illusion: We're the second hungriest state in the nation (behind Mississippi), and the hungriest when it comes to children —— 1.3 million Texans and 22 percent of those younger than 18 are "food insecure."

"Food insecure families often go hungry at one or more times over the course of the year," said J.C. Dwyer, state policy coordinator for the Texas Food Bank Network, in an email to the QueBlog, "and they are constantly struggling to put food on the table, but they don't experience hunger every single day. We have more children living in homes that 'struggle with hunger' than any other state."

"Very food insecure," on the other hand, refers to people who experience hunger on a daily basis for a period of a year.

According to the USDA annual report, released on November 16, 16.3 percent of Texans were “at risk” of hunger between 2006 and 2008, an increase of 1.5 from the previous period. And that was before the recession hit the state, and it is expected the numbers will be larger when the next report comes out in 2010.

Economic crisis aside, the more you dig the more clear it becomes that there seems to be enough food for everybody; it is the distribution system that's lousy. For example, only 50 percent of those eligible for the SNAP program (Simplified Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps) actually apply for it, and those who do must wait more than a month to get help. These figures are particularly shocking considering that (and these are also USDA figures) more than 96 billion pounds of food are wasted annually in the U.S., and that food insecurity costs Texas more than $9 billion a year because of lower productivity related to malnutrition.

“This is the time when we most need these public structures to work,” said Dwyer, in a press release. “The food banks are grateful to be working with `the Health and Human Services Commission` to help develop solutions, but a long-term fix will also require the state legislature to take this problem seriously.”

With that in mind, the Texas Hunger Initiative (a joint effort of Texas Baptists and the School of Social Work's Center for Family and Community Ministries at Baylor University) met on November 19 at the Bill Daniel Student Center on the university's Waco campus. More than 250 people —— members of advocacy groups, social service providers and federal, state, and local governments —— attended the event. Although this is only the beginning, they all agreed on one thing: Hunger in Texas should —and could— be eradicated by 2015. They will meet again in Austin on January 20, 2010.

On Tuesday, December 8, Jeremy Everett, director of the Texas Hunger Initiative, met with Mayor Julián Castro, Bill Ludwig (USDA regional administrator), Dwyer, Eric S. Cooper (president of the San Antonio Food Bank Network and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank) and local pastors to begin talks about the group's new goal: To turn Bexar County and San Antonio into the first hunger-free county and major city.

"Our meeting with the Mayor yesterday was very positive," Dwyer told the QueBlog in an email the day after the meeting. "He has committed to helping us in our goal of making Bexar County the first food-secure county in the nation."

Hunger in San Antonio? Looking around at Sanantonians, the word “malnourished” doesn't come to mind, but that's precisely one of the problems that most affect our city, which has a higher poverty rate than the state average.

“Obesity and hunger have been rising at the same time,” Dwyer told the QueBlog. “In places like San Antonio, people trying to stretch the check to go the full month `who` don't have enough to buy food, often buy cheaper, filling foods like breads and processed foods. Good meat and good vegetables cost more money, so they end up eating these more unhealthy food in an effort to avoid going hungry.”

“Poor nutrition is manifested in our significantly higher rate of diabetes, heart disease and obesity,” Cooper told the QueBlog. “We need to do a better job educating our families about diet and exercise, and building a palate with our children so that they can enjoy eating healthy.”

When the QueBlog suggested that, hopefully, the meetings will deal with the fact that kids in schools are being fed garbage, Cooper laughed.

“Kids today just don't have a palate for healthy foods, because they're being fed so much junk.”

If the recession wasn't bad enough, the fact that half of those eligible are reluctant to take advantage of the SNAP program for a variety of reasons, makes the figures go higher.

“People don't understand the benefits are there and they don't know how to apply, and those who do soon find out there are a lot of policy barriers that cause families to give up after they make the initial contact,” Cooper told the QueBlog.

But there is also the question of pride.

“Some families feel that, if they apply, they're failures,” said Cooper. “Mothers want to help their children, but husbands feel they'll be bringing shame to their families if they apply. One of our main goals is to better educate our communities about those resources.”

Patricia Mancha, director of communications and governmental affairs for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, agrees.

“It's always an issue,” she said in a Baylor press release. “ `People think` â??I've worked all my life and I'm not going to do this. I can pull myself up by the bootstraps.' But `we need to` recognize this is an entitlement program. You're not being weak or lazy.”

With the holidays approaching, the more immediate task of food distribution to the homeless is particularly urgent this year. On December 5, the San Antonio Food Bank participated in the annual Christmas Under the Bridge program and has launched several donation drives to collect food to help families during the holidays. And, in April 2010, they'll be taking over the kitchen at the new Haven for Hope campus.

“We're very excited in moving to the campus,” Cooper told the QueBlog. “We currently operate the kitchen downtown on Dwyer street, and in that shelter there are about 100 homeless people that we currently feed. In April that shelter is going to close and those homeless individuals will move to the new campus, and we will grow our program to meet the needs for more people who will be sheltered at the campus. We'll combine hot meals while providing culinary arts training to the unemployed homeless to get them jobs in the food service industry.”

If you want to volunteer, the slots for this year's Christmas and New Year's are filled, but don't get discouraged.

“Hunger knows no holiday,” Cooper said, “and there's a lot of availability the rest of the year.”

If you want to donate or get involved, visit safoodbank.org or call (210) 337-3663.