Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How to *Really* Help End Hunger This Thanksgiving

[picture: Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want"]

Tomorrow, as Texans sit down to a delicious meal of turkey and trimmings, many of us will feel a familiar pang in our stomachs: guilt. Yes, there's nothing like a bountiful meal with loved ones to remind us not just how blessed we are, but how many go without.

On cue, a chorus of news media and state statistics converge to validate that gnawing feeling. Last week, the USDA revealed that more Americans are struggling with hunger than at any point since the government started measuring the problem. Even worse, we learned that Texas is now the second hungriest state, right after beleaguered, swampy Mississippi.

As if the holidays weren't stressful enough.

Faced with a pile of steaming mashed potatoes, saucy gravy and succulent bird, we find ourselves in a true ethical dilemma. What can be done about such a big problem?

Many consider volunteering at local soup line. After all, there's no greater reward than physically handing food to someone in need, and President Obama recommends it. But while food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries need volunteers all year long, at this time of year you'll probably have to take a number. Can you end hunger just by taking someone else's slot?

Fortunately, there are a number of things your family can do - right now, or even at tomorrow's dinner table:
  1. Contact your local legislators. Sound daunting? It's not. Simply click here to sign a letter asking your state legislator to make hunger a priority in Texas. Better yet, have every one at your table sign one. This one act may make more of a difference than a week of volunteering.
  2. Donate to your local food bank. Got cans? Great. Got cash? Better. Although nothing beats the warm feeling of collecting cans for the hungry, in reality your local food bank can do a lot more with your dollar.
  3. Join the movement. If you believe that hunger is unacceptable in a state as great as Texas, then sign up for Feeding America's Hunger Action Center. You'll learn a lot about the problem, and get a very occasional email asking you to lend your voice to the cause.
That's it!

Hunger truly is a massive problem in Texas, and ending it will require a massive, joint response from individuals, businesses and public institutions - but you've just taken your first step.

Enjoy your turkey.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Nutrition Programs Can Encourage Healthy Eating

As debate on Child Nutrition Reauthorization begins to heat up the halls of Congress (and the blogosphere), many questions are being raised about the role of the federal nutrition programs in fostering healthy eating.

The truth is, existing federal programs appear to have very little to do with eating habits. Years of research on the effects of SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) on diet concluded that SNAP participants eat more (as is the point of the program), but not very differently from their neighbors.

Likewise, a new USDA report released last week concludes that participation in the federal school meals programs is "not significantly related" to students' waistlines.

But just because these programs "do no harm" doesn't mean they can't be leveraged to improve public health.

For example, today's New York Times examines the growth in the use of SNAP benefits at farmers' markets across the country. And here in Texas, a new federal program is bringing farmers' market coupons to low-income elderly in Witchita Falls (1, 2) among other cities.

Child Nutrition Reauthorization gives us a chance to re-write the rules for school meals and other programs to improve our children's diets. You can get involved by learning what we think needs to change, then signing up to help us change it!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Texas Food Banks Call for Changes to Child Nutrition Programs

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama announced a goal of ending childhood hunger in America by the year 2015. Since then, recession, health care and other issues have taken the national stage, but this goal is still achievable!

Texas has the highest rate of children facing hunger in the nation – 22%. This year, Congress is scheduled to rewrite some of the key programs affecting the nutrition of Texas children. The Texas Food Bank Network has agreed on a set of detailed policy changes to achieve this goal:

National School Lunch Program (NSLP)
After SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), school lunch is the largest anti-hunger program in the country, and a potent lever for changing the way children learn about food and healthy habits. Unfortunately, school lunch in Texas doesn’t reach all the children who need it due to stigma and difficulty enrolling eligible families. Food quality also suffers due to low reimbursement rates, competitive junk foods outside the cafeteria, a thicket of conflicting nutrition rules and a general feeling that school lunch is “welfare food.” Congress can improve the NSLP by:
  • Forcing competitive foods to meet the same science-based standards as cafeteria food (S.934 / H.R.1324)
  • Eliminating the "reduced price" lunch category to cut red tape and feed more children
  • Making the successful Philadelphia "Universal Free" model a national option (S. 1226 / H.R. 2803)
  • Improving direct certification through other programs to save paperwork & enroll more eligible families (S. 1343)
  • Simplifying nutrition standards to allow for local food sourcing & more commonsense rules
School Breakfast
School breakfast provides nutrition early in the day, when it is needed most for learning, and contributes to better behavior in the classroom. Unfortunately, participation in school breakfast in Texas is low due to stigma, and the difficulty in getting to school early before buses run. Congress can improve school breakfast participation by:
Supplemental Program for Women, Infants & Children (WIC)
WIC provides new & expectant mothers with nutritionist-approved food vital for early childhood development. Unfortunately, WIC is a discretionary program, and so annual funding routinely falls behind rising food prices and expanding caseloads in tough economic times. This makes it difficult for caseworkers to advertise slots that may not exist in the next fiscal year. Congress can improve WIC by:
  • Appropriating enough funding in the FY 2010 budget to meet the growing need
  • Excluding combat pay from income for the purposes of determining eligibility (S.581)
Child and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP)
CACFP reimburses community organizations like food banks for providing after-school meals in settings that include tutoring, physical activity & nutrition education. Unfortunately, smaller organizations have difficulty meeting the program requirements using the small “snack” reimbursement, which is the highest reimbursement available in 44 states. Congress can improve CACFP by:
  • Bringing the higher "supper" reimbursement option nationwide (S.990/H.R. 3321)
  • Encouraging data-sharing between CACFP sponsors and local school districts
Summer Nutrition Programs
The summer nutrition programs recognize that hunger doesn’t take a vacation, and hungry children are missing school meals when school is out. Unfortunately, participation is very low in Texas, due to inconsistent outreach and a lack of organizations willing to sponsor sites. Congress can help more organizations sponsor sites by:
  • Increasing reimbursement levels and and assisting in rural transportation costs
  • Reducing sponsor paperwork where possible
  • Decreasing area eligibility from 50% of the poverty line to 40% (H.R. 540)
These programs are the front-line in the fight against child hunger in Texas, and changing them will be vital to its elimination. Sign up now to find out how you can help!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Need For Summer Meals Soaring in East Texas

Video - Summer Meals sites funded by the USDA and provided by the East Texas Food Bank have had to expand to accomodate all the children in families hit hard by the recession.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Three New Reports Focus Attention on Child Hunger

Three national organizations released reports focused on child hunger today, detailing the extent, economic costs, and potential solutions to the problem. Texas has the highest rate of child hunger of all states, according to Census data, with one in five children facing food insecurity.

Feeding America, the national network of food banks, released a report detailing the costs of child hunger to the economy. Arguing that the direct and indirect effect of child hunger in the U.S. is a contributing factor to the nation’s economic woes and puts America at a competitive disadvantage, the paper articulates the lifelong consequences child food insecurity has on individuals and families.

“While one in five Texas children remain at risk of hunger, a significant portion of Texans will face lowered academic achievement, reduced productivity, and escalating health care costs for years to come,” said Texas Food Bank Network State Director Barbara Anderson. “This will hinder economic growth and affect all Texans, not just the neediest.”

Two other reports were also released today. One, from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) contained a blueprint for achieving President Obama’s campaign goal of ending domestic child hunger by 2015. The other, a report by the California Food Policy Advocates, details that state’s experience with the federal Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which also provides meals in Texas, as a well as a national perspective on the importance of SFSP.

The FRAC report boldly calls on the nation to end childhood hunger through a mix of economic growth focused on lower-income workers, strengthening proven anti-hunger programs, and making sure all families have convenient access to reasonably priced, healthy food. The Federal Child Nutrition Programs central to this strategy will be reauthorized by Congress this year.

The Texas Food Bank Network, whose members serve every Texas county, estimated serving over 900,000 hungry children in the last year.

“As long as there are hungry children in Texas, our state will not be able to achieve its full potential,” said Texas Food Bank Network Policy Coordinator JC Dwyer. “These reports show us the terrible consequences of continuing to allow this problem to exist, but also provide us a way to stop it. With the help of Congress and state and local leaders, we can end child hunger in Texas.”

Monday, June 15, 2009

Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation: Summer Programs Strain to Feed Newly Hungry Texas Kids

Last week, USA Today reported on the skyrocketing number of children who have become eligible for free school lunches as a result of the recession.

While these children are on summer break, advocates wonder whether Summer Meals, a federally-funded program available in Texas, will be able to take up the slack.

The program, which can be offered to hungry children by school districts, municipalities, or nonprofits, is reimbursed by USDA and may be offered in a variety of formats. Food banks in Houston, Tyler, Dallas, Ft. Worth and Odessa have all launched innovative efforts designed to address hunger when school is out.

Summer Meal's biggest booster may be Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who traveled the state last week to drum up attention for the program (1, 2, 3, 4) while personally issuing a challenge to all Texas mayors on his blog.

"The mayors of Texas are in a position to improve the lives of children in their cities by generating awareness and working with organizations to help feed hungry children," said Staples. "I hope today spurs a change."

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro agreed.

"In the richest nation in the world, no child should go hungry," he said. "We need to make sure the kids are not victims of a bad economy."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

TX Lege OKs New Program for Hungry Kids

Yesterday, by unanimous vote, the Texas Senate approved HB 1622 for passage. The bill, which creates a program to distribute healthy foods to children at-risk of hunger and obesity, was also passed by a nearly unanimous House and is likely to be signed by Governor Perry. 

"I am feeling wonderful," said Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, one of the bill's authors. "We are going to be able to help so many children who are food insecure. This is just marvelous."

The new program still faces obstacles. Funding must be found in the state budget before June 1st to support the $20 million request. This decision will test the commitment of the legislature to childhood nutrition. 

"We're struggling to keep up with the demand and I expect that it's going to continue," commented David Weaver, Director of the South Plains Food Bank in Lubbock. "We need all the help we can get."

You can help make this bill a reality! Please call your state legislators today and ask them to outwardly support full funding for the food bank bill, HB 1622!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Texas #1 in Child Hunger - Legislature Reacts

Yesterday the national group Feeding America released newly calculated Census data revealing that 22.1% of Texas children live in households facing hunger, the highest rate in the nation.

In response, State Senator Judith Zaffirini and Representative Helen Giddings have introduced a bill that would help food banks provide healthy foods to at-risk children. The bill passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee this week.

“This legislation can help us combat the growing crisis of hunger among Texas youth by providing access to food choices that are vital for nutrition education and behavioral change," said Zaffirini in a statement. "What’s more, it would support and extend existing efforts by nonprofit agencies.”

The Texas bill, HB 1622 would address the problem by distributing healthy staples among existing networks maintained by food banks statewide.

“The passage of House Bill 1622 would go a long way to help get healthy food to children who are food-insecure, the children who linger in the school cafeteria and look for leftovers, those that return to school on Monday tired and weak from a weekend of undernourishment,” Eric Cooper, director of the San Antonio Food Bank told the Express News.

Legislators are meeting this week to decide the fate of the bill. You can tell your state legislator to support the bill here!

More coverage: HoustonWichita Falls, Tyler (1,2), Austin

Monday, May 4, 2009

New Funds, Public & Private, Feed Growing Hungry

As the economy falters and the number of hungry Texans rises, funding from both the public and private sectors is rushing to fill the gaps.

Private giving for food banks is up nationwide, according to USA Today. In Tyler, the number of donors to the East Texas Food Bank is up 115%, and their average gift increased from $49.66 to $56.37.  

Anonymous giving is also up, a trend exemplified by a recent $1 million anonymous donation to the North Texas Food Bank. “[The donor] said she would not have been able to look herself in the mirror over the holidays had she not made the gift,” said Jan Pruitt, the food bank’s CEO.

Government programs are following suit by making new investments in programs proven to feed children and the elderly. 

Texas TDA Commissioner Todd Staples recently announced the use of $11 million in federal stimulus money to retrofit school kitchens, making it easier to deliver healthy meals to children through the free and reduced-price lunch program. 

Soon thereafter, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $124,000 in federal grants to encourage the use of farmers' markets by low-income seniors in Texas this summer. 

Even judges are getting into the act, allowing probationers to donate food rather than perform community service. "What better way to help the community than by feeding people?" asked corrections officer Bob Hughes.

Friday, April 24, 2009

One in Four Houstonites Cutting Back on Groceries

A new survey by the Houston Center for Public Policy details the economic situation facing Houston-area families. Notably:
  • 44% of respondents said the economy was the city's most serious problem, up from 15% the previous year. 
  • 25% admitted having trouble buying groceries to feed their families.
The results dovetail with the increased demand experienced by local food charities. 

According to Brian Greene, CEO of the Houston Food Bank, unemployment often forces families to cut budgets where they can, while monthly costs like rent, utilities and car payments remain fixed. 

“Food is one of the few flexible areas” in the family budget, Greene told the Houston Chronicle in response to the survey's findings.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hunters, Supermarkets Provide Protein to Struggling Food Banks

Responding to rising levels of need, two private groups stepped forward last week to assist Texas food banks in their struggle against hunger.
  • In the Amarillo region, United Supermarkets partnered with the High Plains Food Bank to donate meat and other perishables. United estimates it will provide 5,000 lbs./month to the food bank, which is seeing double the number of families it fed at this time last year. "[It] couldn't have come at a better time," said a food bank spokesperson.
  • Hunters in South Texas are firing up their participation in Hunters for the Hungry, a group that promotes the donation of harvested deer statewide. "Times are difficult," said one hunter. "And there are a lot of hungry people who could use all that venison."

Friday, April 17, 2009

State: Feeding New Hungry like "Drinking from a Firehose"

Facing rapidly rising need, state officials have announced a temporary halt to the expansion of TIERS, a new system for processing SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps). 

“It’s tough to make any changes when you’re drinking from a fire hose,” said Stephanie Goodman, a spokesman for the state.

Nearly 3 million Texans are now receiving SNAP benefits, up 20% from the same time last year. 

Advocates and legislators approved of the halt. Many have been critical of the system, which has documented problems with lost paperwork and timeliness. "We cannot have a situation where technical glitches hold up food and medical care for hard working mothers and families in our area," said Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown).

HHSC has had "some challenges in achieving the timeliness benchmarks," admitted HHSC Commissioner Albert Hawkins. The deteriorating economy has just added more stress to the rollout of this new system. 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Stimulus Money Reaching Hungry Texans

Starting this month, the nearly three million Texans who rely on SNAP benefits (previously known as Food Stamps) will receive a 13.6% boost in those benefits to help feed their families. 

As a result of federal stimulus dollars now reaching Texas, families are seeing an average boost to their benefits of $38. 

"You have to make every penny count," said Beaumont mother Monique Bendy. "This will help in so many ways." 

Half of the Texans benefiting from SNAP are children.

SNAP is widely seen by economists as one of the most effective means of stimulus, both because of the efficiency of benefit delivery, and the speed at which benefits are spent locally. 

"That money is spent almost immediately. People aren't saving that money," said Don Baylor, policy analyst at Austin's Center on Public Policy Priorities. "People buy bread. That creates jobs at the supermarket, and the chain goes on."

Economists estimate that for every dollar in SNAP benefits spent in Texas, the state will see $1.73 in economic activity, resulting in local job growth. 

Monday, April 6, 2009

State Stats: Texas Hunger at New Plateau

For weeks, anecdotal evidence across Texas has suggested a rise in the number of families facing hunger. Food Banks have appealed for public help, describing the situation as "critical" in North Texas and "overwhelming" in South Texas. In East Texas, a man was caught burgling for food

Now, public numbers have given added weight to these stories. As reported last week by Reuters, 1 in 10 Americans is now using the SNAP program (previously known as Food Stamps) to feed their families. Texas has the highest number of SNAP recipients at 2.8 million - half of whom are children.

In the past three months, policy analysts have watched as Texas SNAP numbers fell, a result of families no longer needing emergency relief from Hurricane Ike. This trend slowed in February, and has now reversed - more than 39,000 Texans entered the program in March (see graph). It now appears that Texas has reached a new plateau of need. 

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Recession Reduces Healthy Eating

New research finds that families faced with high prices and rising unemployment are cutting back on the quality of their meals. 

A February survey conducted by Multi-Sponsor Surveys found that 40% of Americans are eating less nutritious food. The effect was most pronounced among families hit hardest by the recession: those who self-identified as "down and out" or "on the edge." 

Confirming this study, a national industry group reported a 3.6% drop in sales of fruits and vegetables in the final months of 2008. 

Texas families are also stretching their paychecks to eat. Many low-income families are making the difficult decision to sacrifice quality before quantity - essentially mortgaging long-term health against the immediate need to eat. Help bring more healthy foods to Texas children! Ask your representatives to support SB 944 / HB 1622.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

With Mom and Dad Downsized, Texas Kids Suffer

The sinking economy isn't just affecting the Texas workforce - it's also affecting their children. 

According to the state, the number of Texas children qualifying for federally subsidized school lunches jumped 5% in the last year. Many more recently unemployed parents may be unaware of the program. 

“Schools absolutely should be more proactive about it,” said Celia Hagert, a senior policy analyst with the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. “That could be a big boost for a family. If they’re struggling and can get breakfast and lunch for free, that’s a huge weight off their shoulders.”

Officials are also seeing an increase in the number of homeless children. Over 300,000 Texas children are currently homeless - more than any other state.  "We are literally seeing our future generations living on the streets," said Amarillo food banker Zack Wilson.

Families with children will receive a small measure of relief in April, when federal stimulus funds increase the average SNAP/food stamps allotment by $38. Efforts are ongoing to create a new program to feed children healthy foods after school and on weekends - see how you can help!

Friday, March 13, 2009

"What He Gets Here Is His Dinner"

This great video from the Capital Area Food Bank in Austin captures the faces of child hunger in Texas, and one of the key programs fighting it - Kids Cafe.

Kids Cafe and programs like it would directly benefit from the passage of Texas Senate Bill 944 / House Bill 1622.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

32 Million on Food Stamps - and 1 in 11 is Texan

New numbers show a record number of Americans - nearly 32 million - turning to the SNAP program (aka Food Stamps) to feed their families. 

One in eleven of these lives in Texas - and anecdotal evidence suggests the need is growing.
  • SNAP offices in Fort Worth are seeing a "dramatic increase" in applicants. "What we saw in January we believe could be our first wave, but it’s only one month of data," said a spokesperson.
  • Offices in Laredo are being flooded with requests. “We have people literally like this. Lines from the windows back as far as our restroom doors,” said office manager Terri Werth.
  • Officials estimate that only 67% of those eligible are receiving the benefit, translating to lost federal aid - as much as $173 million in cities like Dallas
Sitll, aggregate statewide numbers show a recent downward trend. March data from HHSC reports 400,000 fewer individuals receiving benefits since November, when Hurrican Ike generated a spike in need. 

However, experts point out these numbers are still 200,000 higher than six months ago. Many believe the recent drop can be credited to Ike families leaving the program - while the long-term need continues to inch upward.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Texas Unemployment Rate Now 6.4%

Today the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed the January unemployment rates released last week by the Texas Workforce Commission. 

As feared, 6.4% of Texans were unemployed in January, up half a percentage point from the month previous. 

Social service agencies are straining under the weight of increased need, and many are waiting on federal stimulus funds for relief. 

Stimulus money is already supporting farm sector employment in the Texas Panhandle. According to HHSC, the stimulus funds will also help the rising number of hungry Texans, who will see a 13.6% increase in SNAP (aka Food Stamps) benefits next month. In addition to feeding newly hungry families, these funds will drive job growth in the agricultural and food retail sectors. 

Friday, February 27, 2009

Lubbock: Gardens Against Hunger Growing

A rising number of Lubbock residents, stung by high food prices and the deepening recession, are turning to their backyards for nutrition. 

"Any kind of seed I can get my hands on, I'll be planting," said resident Sherry Pullen, who has grown several different kinds of beans and vegetables to supplement her economical diet.

The South Plains Food Bank, which recently reported a 36% increase in demand for its Kids Cafe program, is capitalizing on the trend with a 5-acre youth garden designed to supplement the canned food available at its warehouse with between 90,000 and 150,000 pounds of produce annually.

Roy Riddle, the garden's land manager, pointed out the irony of such hunger in a land of plenty. 

"We're sitting here in the middle of 5 million acres of farmland and we don't even grow enough to feed the people of Lubbock," he said.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How to End U.S. Hunger

This week, Texas played host to Joel Berg, a nationally recognized hunger expert and Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Berg's new book, "All You Can Eat" is a blueprint for solving domestic hunger. 

"LBJ's war on poverty actually cut poverty in half," Berg told an Austin TV audience. "When government takes on this problem it can have results."

Berg's appearances in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas promoted local food banks in addition to spreading his message of government leadership to end hunger. 

"Trying to solve [U.S. hunger] with canned food drives alone is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon," said Berg. "People have to call their elected officials and get them on the stick to solve this problem."

Monday, February 23, 2009

SB 944 / HB 1622 - Help Feed Texas Children

As the recession deepens and lines for help grow, charities face an impossible choice: reduce the quantity of food given to each family, or cut quality?

This same choice, vexing thousands of Texas families, has led to a paradoxical rise in both child hunger and child obesity statewide. 

Last week, State Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) stepped forward to address the problem. SB 944, filed by Zaffirini on Thursday (and filed later in the House as HB 1622), outlines a solution to provide Texas children at risk of both hunger and obesity with access to healthy food. 

The bill supplements existing state efforts to address child obesity through nutrition education and physical activity, providing the crucial "third leg" of access to families who cannot afford healthy options. 

The program will direct free, healthy food to needy families through existing systems (food banks, Kids Cafes, food pantries etc.) in order to avoid prohibitive administration & start-up costs. 100% of the money provided by the bill will be used to purchase nutritious food for children.  

Now more than ever, it is crucial for Texas to focus on the basics. What could be more basic than good food for our children?

Help make this bill a reality! Write your state legislator today and ask them to invest in the health of Texas children through SB 944/HB 1622.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Stimulus Money Will Feed Texans

Thanks to all who called their members of Congress! 

In addition to stimulating the stagnant Texas economy, the economic recovery act passed by Congress this weekend represents real relief for the growing number of Texans facing hunger. The act will immediately provide:
  • Food Stamps - $19.9 billion for the national Food Stamps Program, translating to a one-time increase in benefits of 13.6%. This will bring approximately $1 billion in food stamps benefits to hungry Texas families, and create $1.73 billion in economic stimulus here in Texas wherever the benefits are spent. 
  • WIC - $500 million for the national Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program to support increasing caseloads. Texas' share will depend on the number of new enrollees this year.
  • Charitable Food - $100 million to the national Emergency Food & Shelter Program (EFSP) , and $150 million to the national Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) , both of which provide food to struggling Texas food banks.
  • Senior Meals - $100 million nationally to Meals on Wheels. 
In addition to hunger relief, the act also provides $2.1 billion for Head Start programs, and expands the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit to provide greater tax relief to low-income families. These expansions will put disposable income in the hands of those who need it most, and are most likely to spend it quickly - helping Texas and Texans alike.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Texans Turn to Food Stamps for Nutrition

More Texans are turning to food stamps to battle rising prices that present a choice between less food - or less quality.

"It's not that I don't want to eat healthy or anything but I would much rather eat something than nothing at all," Angelle Mendez, a 34 year-old Texan mother told Scripps News. "Plus, it's not exactly the best time to be picky, I also have other people to feed at home."

To cope, Mendez has joined the 1 in 8 Texans using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), AKA food stamps. 

Luckily, it is estimated that the stimulus bill now before Congress will send approximately $1 billion in SNAP benefits to hungry Texas families. Unfortunately, Texas has yet to embrace the new "SNAP" name, with its overtones of nutrition, and is still having difficulty with a newly privatized eligibility system that makes the application process unnecessarily difficult. 

Angel Reyna of El Paso applied for the program when he lost his job as a truck driver last year. He credits the SNAP program with helping him continue to feed his family while he looked for work, and now he's back on his feet. 

"You use it when you're down, and you start putting back in the system when you're up," he said.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Middle-Class Texans Need Food, Jobs

Media reports across Texas suggest that the recession has made inroads into the Texas middle class, forcing these families to visit food banks to make ends meet. 

In Tyler, the Pearsons are just scraping by. When Melinda Pearson's husband lost his job at Goodyear Tire last year, her family had no where to turn but the local food bank. "It's scary because you're used to being able to pay for meals," she said.

"I have met with my agencies, and they are reporting that they are seeing people they have never seen before," said Robert Bush, the president of Tyler's East Texas Food Bank. "They are seeing many middle-class people who, for whatever reason, are on the margins and needing help for the first time."

Likewise, the San Antonio Food Bank was surprised last week when it advertised an opening for an entry-level position.

“Close to 200 resumes came in,” said Eric Cooper, the food bank's CEO. “There were a couple of CPAs, a couple of MBAs, and many had bachelor's degrees. People were educated to the hilt.” 

That food bank reported a 79% increase in food stamp applications from 2007 to 2008, and a 27% jump in the number of families who received emergency food in the same period.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Baylor Initiative Seeks to Organize Charities

Last week, the Baylor School of Social Work announced a partnership with the policy organization Christian Life Commission to create a new statewide anti-hunger initiative. 

The Texas Hunger Initiative seeks to coordinate the state's Baptist feeding ministries with other charities and the 10% of Texans who are practicing Baptists to significantly reduce hunger within six years. 

“With some organization and creativity, hunger in Texas can be alleviated, and I think we’ll be well on our way to that within six years,” said Jeremy Everett, the project's lead organizer and a former community organizer in San Antonio.

Initially, the project will focus on identifying gaps in hunger relief efforts in El Paso, Val Verde, McClennan and Bexar counties. The strategy may involve public policy advocacy in addition to local coordination.

"The process we'll put together for the hunger initiative is the same one I used in San Antonio, and both use social work principles," Everett said. "Students interested in community development and community organizing will graduate from the Baylor School of Social Work with direct practice experience gained through this initiative."

Monday, February 9, 2009

Stimulus: House Needs to Stand Firm for Hungry

Late Friday night, Senate negotiators nearly stripped $20 billion in improvements to the SNAP program (formerly known as Food Stamps) from the much-anticipated stimulus bill. 

Luckily, national groups like the Food Research & Action Center and Feeding America were on hand to prevent those cuts - but other compromises were made. The Senate bill now differs markedly from that passed by the House, and most of the changes don't favor hungry families:

In general, the House bill is better for those hit hardest by the recession, and provides more resources to the best stimulus available - food stamps, for which every dollar spent yields $1.73 in stimulus. 

If your Congressmember voted for the stimulus package, call them today and tell them to "stand firm" for hungry Texas families! 

Capitol Switchboard: (202)224-3121

Friday, February 6, 2009

Texas Unemployed Need Recovery Package

This morning the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that the U.S. economy lost nearly 600,000 jobs in January, pushing the national unemployment rate up to 7.6%. 

In Texas, state unemployment data is only available to December 2008. However, in that month the Texas unemployment rate stood at 6%, nearly two percentage points higher than a year previous.

Texas can expect its statewide rate to rise even higher when January data is released, underscoring the need for a pro-active recovery package that will stimulate the economy and help hard-hit families. Tell Senators Cornyn and Hutchison that Texas needs this package now, toll-free at 866-544-7573.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Rep. Rodriguez Urges Food Stamps for the Hungry

On Saturday, Congressman Ciro Rodriguez (D-Del Rio) urged eligible constituents to apply for food stamps, citing the inability of food banks to keep pace with mounting demand. 

According to Rodriguez, Texas stands to receive a $26 million boost in food stamp benefits should the economic recovery package pass the Senate this week.  

“I feel really good that this is a good investment in our community and it’s a good investment in terms of getting people back to work and it’s also about what I call an investment in ourselves,” Rodriguez told local elected leaders.

Beyond assisting the growing number of Texas hungry, food stamps are largely seen as an excellent stimulus for the Texas economy. A dollar spent on the program provides $1.73 in economic impact, according to economists. 

“If they’re going to give out money, we want it here,” said Del Rio Mayor Efrain Valdez.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Stretched in West Texas: A Paycheck Away from Hunger

As the recession grips West Texas, experts  estimate that the average Lubbock family is just one paycheck away from financial disaster.

That situation is forcing many nonprofits to remain in overdrive. 

Demand for the South Plains Food Bank's Kids Cafe has increased 36 percent in the last year. "If you are hungry it's hard to concentrate," explained Parkway Elementary Principal Eddie Fitzgerald. "If you are hungry, you spend time trying to think about how you are going to have your next meal. So the programs that we have are very beneficial."

Nearby in San Angelo, academics at Angelo State University report a long-term decrease in that community's quality of life indicators. 

"Stretched!" Write the report's authors. "The word not only describes the threat of current conditions on households, it also describes the established trend of multiple pressures affecting the quality of life for local households. San Angelo needs to reverse this trend if it is to develop socially and economically."

Friday, January 30, 2009

Shapleigh: Times are Tough in El Paso

Texas Senator Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) noted the growing need for anti-hunger relief while visiting HHSC offices in his hometown last week. 

"When times are tough that has budget effect," said Shapleigh. "We will go into the budget to make sure that food stamps is funded, unemployment insurance to make sure there is enough to cover people when they've lost their jobs."

According to HHSC, offices in the El Paso region are seeing an influx of new families applying for hunger relief, straining already minimal staffing levels. 

"We have too much work and too few people," HHSC eligibility specialist Bill Howe told the El Paso Times. "I have a feeling that come April, it's going to bottom out, unless we've got available some more people."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Obesity Growing In Poor Areas of Texas

A report released today by the Office of the State Demographer predicts that more than 15 million Texans (more than 40%) will be obese by 2040, unless public policies are enacted now. 

According to the report, the problem is worst in Texas' low-income communities, where access to nutritious food is limited. 

“We already know in those areas there are a lot of other socio-economic disadvantages,” said Pilar Oates, executive director of Methodist Healthcare Ministries, which commissioned the report.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, stressed the threat posed by obesity to the state. “It strains the entire health care system. It hinders our economic productivity. It drains our state budget,” she said.

Unsurprisingly, many of the areas highlighted in the report are also those where hunger is rampant. In both cases, providing access to nutritious foods is key to preventing future costs.  

Monday, January 26, 2009

Legislature: Get "Back to Basics" for Texas Kids

The following opinion piece ran in the Laredo Morning Times among other outlets:

"Last week at Hillcrest Elementary near Austin, more than a hundred children huddled in the early evening around steaming plates of rice, baked beans with ham, and plums all prepared from scratch.

Nearby there were board games, educational activities, and a host of tutors ready to help them with their daily homework. The program, one of hundreds like it supplied by Texas food banks, is called Kids CafĂ©. Its value is inestimable.

'I don’t know what we would do without it,' said Sara Guerra, Hillcrest’s principal.

Nearby Dalia, age 10, agreed: 'If you don’t have food to help you think, then you will fall asleep a lot, and you won’t learn that much.'

Another child, Nadia, 9, looked at her plate and shrugged: 'It’s my dinner because sometimes we don’t have food in the house.'

Down the road, the Texas legislature had just learned it was facing a budget shortfall of $9.1 billion for the biennium." 

Friday, January 23, 2009

Peanut Butter Recall Hurts Food Banks

Earlier this week, the FDA recalled all peanut butter manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America, where a salmonella outbreak had been traced. 

Food Banks across Texas jumped into action, dumping cases of products containing peanut butter - a cheap source of protein for hungry families. 

The North Texas Food Bank warned its clients about 132 cases of peanut butter crackers that had already left its warehouse. "We have notified all of our agencies to watch out for it and to follow manufacturers instructions on disposal," said the Food Bank's COO, Paul Wunderlich.

Although the food banks' safety procedures likely saved lives, the incident reinforces the unpredictable nature of donated food. Food banks typically sustain their inventories with USDA commodities and purchased foods in addition to these donations to ensure overall quality.  

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Farm Bill Helping Texas Tread Water

Food Banks across the nation are facing a surge in demand, and are looking for new ways to fill their shelves. 

The High Plains Food Bank in Amarillo says it is feeding twice the number of families it served last year - nearly 12,000 households in all. The one factor that has kept some food coming to panhandle families has been the implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill. 

"In the Farm Bill, 67 percent of those programs actually go to help places like the food bank," said David Cleavinger, National Wheat Growers President. 

A national piece of legislation, the bill will provide $10 billion over five years to nutrition programs like food banks - but only if implemented properly. Part of the bill allows USDA to buy excess commodities from Texas farmers to give to food banks. 

Area Congressman Frank Lucas told reporters he wants to make sure everyone receives what was promised.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

You don't have to go to Mexico...

Video courtesy of the Capital Area Food Bank in Austin. These kids manage to describe hunger more clearly than most policy wonks. Enjoy!

Friday, January 16, 2009

$1 per meal? For a month?

Shocking as it sounds, one in eight Texans now rely on food stamps to make ends meet. This number is rising by the month, despite continuing problems with Texas' new eligibility system. 

But what are those one in eight Texans getting for their trouble? Last month, the Bush family in Tyler found out by taking the "Food Stamps Challenge," restricting their food purchases to the average benefit of one dollar per meal. 

"There was a definite psychological shift," said Erin Bush of the challenge. "You can see that when you're poor it consumes so much of your life. It's hard to focus on anything else. Imagine what someone feels who can see no end in sight."

Currently, Texan native Caleb is blogging his own month-long food stamps challenge. Now on Day 6, he writes: "Today I really started noticing a sort of scattered / forgetful feeling."

You can follow Caleb's progress online - better yet, try your own food stamps challenge! 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Poverty Rises in West Texas

Despite their proximity to Texas' oil fields, West Texas communities are feeling the effects of the national recession, say local service providers. 

"We are seeing evidence that the economic crisis has finally hit the area," said Zack Wilson of the High Plains Food Bank in Amarillo. "A couple of car dealerships closed down, and more and more people are asking for help."

"We're seeing a lot of people who in the past wouldn't have asked for help," echoed David Weaver of the South Plains Food Bank in Lubbock. "We had a gentleman who came by a couple of weeks ago and told us 'if it wasn't for my (8-year-old) daughter I wouldn't be here.'"

These anecdotes are borne out in data from West Texas school districts, which show a surge in applications for free and reduced-price school lunches. 62% of children in the Amarillo school district are now eligible, compared to 58% just last year, according to the Amarillo Globe-News.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Peanuts Against Poverty

While anti-hunger advocates in other states might joke about getting "peanuts" from their donors, Texas is serious about nuts. 

Texas PALS (Peanuts Are Lending Support) - a collaboration of the Lubbock-based Texas Peanut Producers Board, Texas Food Bank Network, commercial peanut shellers, and the Texas Department of Agriculture - secured a donation of a semi-truckload of Texas peanuts late last month.

Participating food banks then ground the nuts into peanut butter, a healthy, high protein staple that is difficult for cash-strapped emergency food providers to obtain.

"This is a great example of how local businesses can help out Texans who are in need not only for this holiday season, but throughout the year," said Shelly Nutt, Texas Peanut Producers Board executive director. "A donation like this will help many, many people in our state by providing them with a nutritious, high protein food product."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Every Child Deserves to Eat - and Eat Right

The following op-ed was published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Brownsville Herald, Valley Morning-Star, Laredo Morning Times, Pflugerville Pflag, and by the U.S./Mexico Border Commission:

Pop quiz: Which of the following statements is true?

A: One in 5 Texas children is medically obese.
B: One in 4 Texas children lives in a household without enough food.
C: All of the above.

You might think I was joking if I told you the answer is "C." Sadly, this is precisely the situation facing Texas today.

Not only are child obesity and child hunger endemic in our state, their rates are rising. And what may seem strangest of all, these problems tend to occur in the same communities — sometimes even in the same households.

The explanation is simpler than you would think. (Read more...)

Monday, January 5, 2009

News Roundup: Hunger Rising Statewide

Happy 2009? Not for many Texas families. According to recent coverage:
  • In Tyler, the "new poor" are draining supplies at the East Texas Food Bank. Meet a newly poor family, the Moores.
  • In Dallas, the North Texas Food Bank is facing a $156K shortage needed to offset a 25% increase in demand.
  • In Palestine - where 1 in 5 households make less than $15,000/year - social service providers are seeing a "dramatic increase" in families asking for help.
  • In Houston, overwhelming demand has expanded the number of families relying on food stamps by nearly a third.
  • In Taylor, food stamps caseloads are similarly up by 30%.
A stimulus package being debated by Congress could increase funding for hunger relief programs and stimulate the economy through food retail. “Dollar for dollar food stamps are the single most important investment that can be made,” said Jen Adach of the national group Food Research and Action Center.