|BROWNSVILLE, June 6 - For many young Texans, the summer break from school is a time of relaxation and frivolity.
However, for the millions of school-age children who depend on meals provided by Texas schools, summer is often a time of anxiety and empty stomachs.
No child should go through a day hungry. Unfortunately, that's the reality for too many in Texas. As of 2013, it was estimated that one in four Texas children don't know where their next meal will come from. More than three million students qualify for free or reduced-price meals statewide, and one third of these students attend schools where 80 percent of their peers or more also qualify.
Much of my time in public office has focused on eliminating childhood hunger in Texas, paying particular attention on improving nutrition in schools. Low-income families have the most difficulty finding food that is both low-cost and highly nutritious. Accordingly, schools are often the only place children can count on receiving a nutritious meal.
Thus, when school breaks for the summer, too many students go hungry.
The legislature has taken some important steps forward in supporting the federal government's Summer Meals Program, which provides low-income children meals during the summer that meet federal nutrition guidelines. In 2011, I passed a bill requiring school districts with 50 percent or more students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals to offer food service for at least 30 days during summer. Many school districts now provide summer meals in partnership with community nonprofits and faith-based organizations.
These initiatives are vitally needed in Texas, where participation in summer meals is among the lowest in the country. According to a 2013 report from the Food Research and Action Center, only about 11 percent of Texas children who participated in free or reduced-price meal programs statewide also received summer meals — meaning nearly 700,000 students eligible for meals may have gone without.
One of the biggest barriers to participation in summer meals is a simple lack of awareness. That's why last year I sponsored another bill requiring the Texas Department of Agriculture to partner with the Texas Hunger Initiative at Baylor University to create a five-year plan to expand participation in summer meals.
Today, THI is working diligently to increase awareness and participation in the Summer Meals Program across Texas. THI has 12 regional offices, each of which have child hunger outreach staff that collaborate with local school districts, municipalities, service agencies, nonprofits, and faith communities to create summer meal sites. THI also distributes outreach materials and hosts Summer Meals Program kick-off events. In 2013 alone, THI distributed more than 40,000 summer meals outreach materials, highlighted the program at more than 45 media and speaking engagements, and coordinated 12 kick-off events. This work contributed to the addition of more than 90 summer meal sponsors, more than 1,000 meal sites from 2011 to 2013, and more than 2.3 million additional meals served to children since 2011.
This week, THI hosted its kick-off event in the Rio Grande Valley, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. This partnership will collaborate with local food planning associations to increase participation in nutrition programs year round. I am particularly grateful to Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp for attending the campaign kick-off, and for committing Texas A&M resources to combatting hunger across the state.
To find a summer meal site near you or for more information on the Summer Meals Program, visit summermeals.org, text FOODTX to 877-877, or call 2-1-1.
Summer should be a time of lighthearted play, not uncertainty and hunger. Please join me in ensuring all Texas children keep fit, focused, and fed.
Eddie Lucio, Jr. is the state Senator for District 27, which is composed of Cameron, Kenedy, Kleberg, Willacy, and part of Hidalgo Counties.