Jeremy Everett, director of Baylor University's Texas Hunger Initiative.
Jeremy Everett, director of Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative.

McALLEN, RGV – USDA, Baylor University Texas Hunger Initiative and Texas A&M University Health Science Center are collaborating to reduce the number of Rio Grande Valley children that go without a healthy meal.

A dinner was held at the Texas A&M Health Science Center McAllen campus on Monday evening by the various organizations involved in the collaboration. Among those in attendance were Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling.

In his remarks, Jeremy Everett, director of Baylor University Texas Hunger Initiative, posed this question: How do we use these experiences that we have learned building public and private infrastructure around agriculture and begin to address food insecurity and poverty that we are seeing rampant in our communities?

He said almost 40 percent of children in the Valley are considered food insecure. “That means they are regularly missing meals,” he said. By making sure children are provided nutritious food, Everett said diabetes can be reduced and academic performances in school improved. He said a huge research study his department conducted with Dallas ISD proved this.

In an interview with the Guardian after the dinner, Everett said the Texas Hunger Initiative is about building public and private infrastructure to deal with hunger and poverty around the State of Texas.

Everett said that about 18 months ago, working closely with Texas A&M Health Science Center, Baylor’s Texas Hunger Initiative opened an office in McAllen in order to help address the needs of food insecure Valley families.

“We are partnering with the Agriculture Extension Service. They are going to do summer meal outreach with us through all 250 offices, starting here in the Valley. Then they are going to work with us on a community partner program. That community partner program, it is how we have reduced bureaucratic red tape in the state of Texas, reduced bureaucratic spending but have made food resources more readily available to low-income families at the same time.”

Everett said Baylor builds public-private partnerships with the State and organizations such as Catholic charities, so they can provide online access to community programs like the supplemental nutrition assistance program. “We implement hunger coalitions, or food planning associations that bring the faith community together with the non-profit community, the business sector, local government, all to do what we call informed engagement. So, we bring research and assessment to identify exactly what the need is and then the community, together with the universities, like A&M Health Science Center and us, will develop strategic plans to address those needs. As a result, each year we have done more than a billion dollars-worth of resources for low-income families in the State of Texas. We are excited about expanding that here in South Texas. We are going to do it every county in the state.”

Everett said that right now the Texas Hunger Initiative has 16 food planning associations. He said that, working with the A&M AgriLife Extension Service, the plan is to have 254 by the end of 2015.

Everett added that everyone at the Texas Hunger Initiative is “pumped up” about the project.

“It is great work. You think about folks who lived during the Civil Rights era. History judges people based upon what they did or didn’t do to further the course of civil rights during that time. I believe history will judge us based on what we do or do not do to further the cause of those living in poverty and with hunger. It is our calling card so what are we going to do? It is up to us,” Everett said.

In his remarks, Sen. Hinojosa, on behalf of state Sen. Eddie Lucio and the rest of the Valley legislative delegation, thanked Chancellor Sharp for his leadership and for “always thinking about us in the Rio Grande Valley. Hinojosa said hunger for him was a personal issue.

“When I was growing up I remember we did not have enough food. I came from a large family, five brothers, three sisters, and two cousins that we raised. But, we always had tortillas and rice and beans and with corn tortillas. Sometimes, just to make them tasty we put on a little bit of salt on the tortillas. That was our meal,” Hinojosa said.

“I am very impressed to see Baylor University and its hunger initiative focusing on the challenges we have. We have too many children going hungry. When we have hungry children, they do not pay attention, they don’t focus in class. Hungry children cannot learn. We cannot have a great state of Texas without educating children. They key is making sure they do not got to bed hungry. To me, I will tell you, we appreciate Baylor and A&M.”

In an interview with the Guardian after the dinner, Mayor Darling echoed Hinojosa’s remarks. “We are a special place but we also have special problems. Hunger, diabetes, obesity are among them,” Darling said. “This partnership, hopefully, will provide some solutions to those problems. It is exciting to see everybody getting together. I think the challenge now is getting faith-based organizations and non-profits on board and sustaining it. It is not a challenge, it is an opportunity. I think there will be some long term benefits to that.”

In an interview with the Guardian after the dinner, Oscar Muñoz, director of Texas A&M’s Colonias Program, said: “This was a long time coming. I think that coming together and working as a team really brings what are sometimes limited resources and makes it really, really work. We are excited because it is going to impact more people in a very positive manner.”

Audrey Rowe, administrator for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service also spoke at the dinner. Rowe will visit the Little Mexico colonia on South Tower in Alamo today to highlight USDA’s national campaign to expand access to healthy and nutritious meals in the summer months and the department’s efforts to reduce the impacts of poverty and food insecurity.

Rowe said that this year, USDA is targeting 11 states, including Texas, to continue the national effort to expand access to USDA’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Seamless Summer Option.