By TONI ROSE and STACIE SANCHEZ HARE
Texas House of Representatives and No Kid Hungry Texas
Imagine a child arriving at school with a lunchbox whose contents barely constitute a meal, or worse, no lunch at all. They wait in the cafeteria line only to find no money in their account, leaving them with the dreaded sack lunch with minimal nutrition and added stigma. Unfortunately, this is a familiar scenario for the 1 in 4 kids facing hunger in Dallas County and many families across the state.
School meals are the primary source of nutrition for many Texas kids, as their working parents struggle to afford the rising costs of essentials like rent, gas and groceries. We all have friends or neighbors skipping meals and being forced to choose between food and other necessities while our children accrue mounting school lunch debt.
A recent statewide poll commissioned by No Kid Hungry Texas found that 2 in 5 parents with school-aged children experienced food insecurity in the past year, with rural families experiencing even higher rates. For some, this means being unable to afford nutritious options, while others are running out of food and don’t know where their next meal will come from.
One Dallas County resident shared, “Things have gotten so bad that I had to rely on a food bank for the first time in my life. It was the only way we could get groceries for our family.”
Faced with the school lunch debt crisis, teachers reported using their own resources to make sure kids were fed. “I have personally paid for kids to eat lunch and keep extra snacks for those students who come hungry,” a Dallas-area teacher said.
Our educators continue to step up in unsustainable ways. Food banks are operating at capacity to meet record demand levels despite rising fuel and food costs. It’s time for our state leaders to step up and meet the needs of our youngest Texans.
The 88th Texas Legislature has a record budget surplus of $32.7 billion. For a minuscule fraction of this surplus and an even tinier fraction of the overall state budget, Texas legislators can significantly impact childhood hunger by covering the cost of reduced-price meals.
Children eligible for these meals are falling through the cracks as the gap grows between those who need help and get help. At this point, even middle-class families are not far from hunger. For example, two-thirds of adults with annual household incomes of $50k-100k said they would worry about their ability to buy groceries if faced with an unexpected $1,500 expense – like a medical bill or a car repair – or loss of two weeks’ income.
Under federal rules, students with a family income between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level must still pay up to $.40 each for breakfast and lunch. This adds up quickly for families living paycheck to paycheck, especially those with multiple children. Eliminating this expense could help cover things like school supplies, new shoes for growing kids or even transportation costs for those in rural communities.
Paying for reduced-price meals is a financial challenge for families and an administrative burden to school nutrition staff. Efforts to collect unpaid debt drain school resources and create a stigma that no child should have to shoulder.
Texas legislators have a prime opportunity to address the childhood hunger crisis by caring for our hungry students. The lives of 230,000 students across Texas could be improved through the state covering the cost of reduced-price meals.
Texans want this for their neighbors: 90% of those polled agree that ending childhood hunger should be a priority, and 95% agree it should be a bipartisan issue.
Ensuring our children are fed is among the best stewardship of our state’s tax dollars. It’s a wise investment in our next generation and allows our students to focus on learning instead of surviving.
State Rep. Toni Rose was elected in 2012 to represent Texas House of Representatives, District 110, which includes the communities of Oak Cliff, Pleasant Grove, and Balch Springs in Dallas County. Her legislative focus includes mental health reform, access to affordable healthcare, and criminal justice reform.
Stacie Sanchez Hare is the director of No Kid Hungry Texas, a campaign working to end childhood hunger through advocacy work, grantmaking, and partnerships with community organizations and school districts.