Monday, December 29, 2008

Hunger Hurts School Performance

The link between poverty, hunger and poor school performance is well-documented, and sensible - how can children learn when their focus is on their stomachs?

A new statewide report highlighted in the El Paso and Fort Worth media shows how Texas schools must attend to the physical needs of under-performing children as well as their minds.

The number of El Paso children living in poverty between 2000 and 2005 increased from 34 percent to 40 percent, according to the El Paso Times. Only about 80 percent of these students passed the reading section of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, test.

Similar trends hold in Fort Worth. "If lawmakers really want to improve the chances of educational success," opined the Star-Telegram, "they’ll have to be willing to invest more in healthcare, jobs and other support systems for Texas’ children and families."

(See more research on the effects of hunger on schoolchildren here: 1, 2, 3, 4)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Food Stamps Rise, TX Cuts Privatization Ties

Last week the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) cut its ties to corporate giants Maximus and Accenture in a settlement designed to recoup losses and formally end their involvement in a new eligibility system for food stamps recipients.

The system, which has been sharply criticized by editorial boards, elected officials and advocates for the poor, is an attempt to use high technology and privatized call centers to substitute for several years of staffing cuts at HHSC.

Despite continuing difficulties in the new system (which one advocate referred to as being in "total disarray"), the worsening economy is forcing many new families to go through the application process anyway:
As the economy worsens, opines the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, "Texas, more than ever, needs a social safety net that works."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Texas Veterans, Seniors Lining Up for Food

A pair of articles from Central Texas this week demonstrates how growing hunger is affecting Texans that have more than earned their place at the table: seniors and veterans. 

Mary Kay Caldwell, a disabled veteran in Austin, scrapes by on family donations, food pantries and disability compensation. She no longer qualifies for other forms of government assistance. "I’m in the middle," she explains. "I get enough benefits to not qualify for food stamps, and at the same time, I don’t get enough to suffice. The pantries help a lot.” 

An hour South in San Antonio, 66-year-old Susan Jacobs lives on a fixed income, and can only watch as prices for food and other necessities rise around her. “My daughter in Houston said, ‘Come live with me,' but I'm used to being by myself,” she said. “I don't want to be a burden.”

“Social Security was never designed to be an adequate source of income, but by default people are using it that way,” said Jerry Williams, associate professor and chairman of the department of sociology at Stephen F. Austin University. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dallas Squeezed

The down economy is clearly taking a toll on Texas' largest cities, especially Dallas. 
  • Demand for emergency food has risen 25% in recent months, according to the North Texas Food Bank. 
  • More Dallas residents hit by rising costs are now "living on the fringe" of hunger, according to CBS 11 News
  • Middle-class families in Tarrant County are turning to food pantries to make ends meet. "This is my first time I've had to depend on something like this," said the wife of one furloughed GM worker. "It's hard." 
  • The U.S. Conference of Mayors says a recent 77 percent increase in funding has done little to reach the 10 percent of Dallas' food insecure population that is underserved by current efforts.
"These are uncharted waters not only for our country but for our nonprofits," admitted Jan Pruitt, the chief executive officer of the North Texas Food Bank.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hunger in El Paso Up 75%

Although hunger in Texas is concentrated in the big cities, it is by no means just an urban issue. 

Now evidence is emerging that need is up in the farthest corners of the state. Charities in El Paso are reporting a 75% increase in hungry clients this year, according to the El Paso Times.  

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sign of the Times: 1 in 8 Texans Receive Food Stamps

The number of Texans forced to turn to food stamps to feed their families jumped 25% in the last year, according to HHSC records. 

One in eight Texans (2.9 million) now receive this federal benefit, which is designed to kick in when the economy turns sour. Half of those recipients are children.  

This disturbing trend has been reported locally in cities like El Paso, Abilene, and San Angelo, but statewide numbers have been absent from a discussion in which some have claimed Texas is immune to the national recession. 

These shocking numbers obscure the fact that more than a third of the Texans estimated to be eligible for the benefit are not currently receiving it, according to the Food Research and Action Center. The group says this is primarily due to lack of knowledge and complex application requirements. 

Thursday, December 4, 2008

USDA: Hungry Children in Tyler

USDA Under Secretary Nancy Johner joined representatives from the East Texas Food Bank in Tyler last week to highlight the need for USDA's child nutrition programs there.

"Kids in East Texas are hungry," Food Bank Executive Director Robert Bush told the Tyler Morning Telegraph. "One-in-four children is at risk of hunger right now."

Johner called the press conference to praise the food bank's backpack program, which provides healthy food for children when they are out of school.

"We know that they have nutritious food during the school week, but on the weekends they often times go without food and the nutrition element is not always there," Bush said. 

"If you don't have food, you can't learn, and if you don't learn, you can't develop," Johner told CBS-News 19. "You won't be able to be a productive citizen to make it in this world."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Ag Commish: Lubbock Needs Our Help

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples surveyed the demand at Lubbock's South Plains Food Bank Tuesday, which has reported a 15-20% increase in South Plains residents needing food. 

Texas is third in the nation for hunger, "not a distinction we are proud of," Staples admitted.

"When you get to combine agriculture with our food banks across Texas, you know you're doing something special because you're meeting the needs of Texans who can't provide for themselves and you're doing it in a special way," Staples said, referring to state efforts to alleviate hunger.

Lubbock agencies are seeking help to purchase healthy food, which tends to move out of reach for families in tough economic times. 

"Fresh produce is really important for people, it's a high dollar item when you go to the store so it's a thing that a lot of people [...] set aside, because they think they can't afford that," said David Weaver, Executive Director of the Food Bank.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Big Names, Big Problem

To draw attention to the surging demand facing emergency food providers this holiday season, many celebrities (large and small) are stepping out of the woodwork to call for relief. 

The New Jersey Food Bank recently touted a full-page ad in the New York Times from none other than Bruce Springsteen, and Texas isn't taking it lying down:
  • Will Smith recently visited Dallas, making a sizable donation to the North Texas Food Bank and encouraging the crowd to "make someone's life better."
  • Ag Commissioner Todd Staples called on supporters to help him "end hunger in Texas."
  • Texas Senator Jeff Wentworth editorialized on the "soaring" food prices facing food banks.
  • H.E.B. served more than 250,000 Texans during their annual "Feast of Sharing."
How soon until Willie or Kinky takes up the challenge?

Monday, December 1, 2008

A bailout for the hungry?

As more and more special interests crowd around the bailout trough in D.C., one group could stand to have a bigger megaphone - the hungry. 

National advocate Joel Berg recently pointed out in the Houston Chronicle (and on Texas radio), that if anyone deserves a rescue package, it is the nation's hungry. 

"Just as it is unthinkable for the country to allow financial giants to go belly up," writes Berg, "it should be unthinkable to look the other way as tens of millions of low-income Americans (the types of people who clean the offices of AIG and Fannie Mae at night) go without food or shelter."

San Antonio TV reporter Randy Beamer echoed Berg's sentiment online. While some claim that Texas is "doing fine," points out Beamer: "With unemployment rising, the cost of so much of everything rising with it, and the price of gas hitting record highs over the summer, the Food Bank is getting more requests for help than ever before."

Congress can help immediately by enacting a second stimulus package with help for food banks and the people they serve. Not only would such stimulus be spent quickly and locally, it would go to those Texans who need it most!