Josie Perea has four children living with her in her public housing unit on the city’s Westside. She stretches food stamps as far as they will go, but at the end of the month, things get tight.

Two of her kids are in summer school, where they receive breakfast and lunch, but her teenage sons Louis Rodriguez and Izaya Cardenas passed their STAAR tests, did well in school, and have the summer off. Feeding two teenage boys three meals a day makes the food stamps go even faster.

Perea has started bringing the boys to Rhodes Middle School, just a few blocks away. There they receive the same school breakfast and lunch as their siblings, free of charge. 

Community members benefit from the summer food program at Rhodes Middle School.
Josie Perea brings her two sons to Rhodes Middle School to benefit from the summer food program. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

San Antonio ISD’s summer food program, like other public school districts, offers free meals to any child in the community ages 1-18. Perea eats with her children for $4.50.

“That’s pretty good for all this,” Perea said, gesturing to the green beans, pear, hamburger, milk, salad, and fried potato cakes in the shape of smiley faces. (The kids call them “emojis” and they are very popular.)

Every dollar counts for Perea, who just completed her training to work in a call center. “I’m just starting my career,” she said. It eases her mind to know that each of her children has access to a balanced diet, without wondering if she will have enough money to sustain it.

The Problem is Bigger Than You’d Think

San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez knows that the food his students eat at school is sometimes the only food they eat. Food insecurity affects 25% of children in Bexar County, but a high percentage of those kids live in his district. The zip code served by Rhodes Middle School, 78207, is the poorest in San Antonio. By opening summer meal sites to the community, SAISD is able to create a more secure situation for students who have other hungry people in their homes.

Of the 88 sites that host summer meals, approximately 45 are open to community children and teens who are not enrolled in summer programming. Sites are also used by community organizations hosting summer camps, such as the YWCA and neighborhood groups.

The district aims for a seamless transition from school year to summer meals. The same meals – breakfast and lunch – that families rely on during the year, are available through the summer program.

SAISD Senior Executive Director of Food and Child Nutrition Services Jenny Arredondo anticipates that the district will serve 120,000-130,000 meals over the seven weeks of the program, about 3,000-4,000 meals per day.

“Hunger doesn’t end just because the school year’s over,” Arredondo said.

The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered through the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision. Other districts in San Antonio also participate in the nationally mandated program. Schools can qualify to be summer meal sites if their free and reduced lunch rate exceeds 50%. SAISD’s district-wide free and reduced lunch rate is 91.6% and almost all campuses meet the criteria, as they do in Southside, South San, Edgewood, Southwest, and Harlandale ISDs. Northside and North East ISDs also participate in the programs at campuses in low-income areas of those districts.

Other sites can apply to become summer feeding sites through the Texas Department of Agriculture, using census data to demonstrate need.

In school demographics, qualifying for free and reduced lunch is a proxy for poverty. To qualify for the federal free lunch, a student’s family must fall below 130% of the federal poverty level, $31,980/year for a family of four. For reduced lunch prices, students’ families must make below 185% of the federal poverty level, $45,510/year for a family of four.

Even in districts and schools with lower rates some students face food insecurity.

In Alamo Heights ISD, where the the free and reduced lunch rate is 20.5%, food insecurity is still a reality. Students enrolled in summer school and “Summer at the Heights” camps receive meals, but the sites are not open to the community. While AHISD does not have a program though the Department of Agriculture, it does share information about programs in other districts.

At Rhodes, Arredondo is happy to see students from KIPP San Antonio schools and homeschooled families regularly show up for lunch.

By calling 211 or texting “FOODTX” to 877-877, anyone can locate the nearest feeding site. Summer food programs are available through school districts and some City departments hosting summer camps and events, such as the Public Library system and the Parks and Recreation department. The San Antonio Food Bank also partners with local organizations to get food to children in need. 

Food is Just the Beginning

Even the best feeding programs have gaps. This is where Snack Pak 4 Kids comes in.

Summer food programs typically address weekday meals. Like during the school year, weekends are still a challenge for families trying to make ends meet.

During the year, Snack Pak distributes peanut butter, apple sauce, and other shelf-stable foods on a weekly basis. The organization deliver the packs to the school on a weekly basis, and teachers discreetly place the bags in the children’s backpacks to avoid the stigma of “handouts.” Teachers identify the students whom they suspect are not getting enough food on the weekends.

Students grab fruits and vegetables in the food line at Rhodes Middle School.
Community members benefit from the summer food program at Rhodes Middle School. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

The signs of food insecurity – overeating or hoarding food, inability to concentrate, and general poor health – are visible to teachers, who then enroll the kids in Snack Pak. For Snack Pak 4 Kids San Antonio Volunteer Executive Director Leslie Kingman, helping kids establish food security also helps their academic future and, when done well, their sense of dignity. “There’s so much more to it than just food,” she said.

During the summer, parents who sign a release can have the Snack Pak food delivered to their homes. Volunteers make weekly deliveries right to the family’s front door.

The volunteers are coached to ensure that the delivery is professional, like grocery delivery. Kingman said that the goal of the program is to make the Snack Pak food feel more like groceries than handouts. This policy was inspired by a Hawthorne Academy student who refers to her Friday Snack Pak delivery as “getting her groceries.”

Communication is yet another barrier to connecting kids to food. For students who aren’t enrolled in summer programs, getting to the school can require some coordination, even if it’s in walking distance. Parents who work during the day, or those who simply don’t know that the school is serving meals, might not be able to help their children take advantage of the program.

“I don’t think the community really understands how good this is,” Perea said. She wishes the district would do more to get the word out and inform adults that their meals come at a cost if they choose to eat lunch with their children, so that they can plan accordingly.

“I know a lot of parents who don’t have even $2 sometimes,” Perea said.

Snack Pak helps close that gap as well. By taking food to the homes, they ensure that at least some food makes it onto the table on a weekly basis. Snack Pak partners with religious and civic organizations to provide the manpower to make it possible.

“Because of the teachings engrained into our faith systems, people of faith feel this responsibility to not only meet immediate needs, but contribute to their ability to learn and pursue a better future,” Kingman said.

The organizations collect jars of creamy peanut butter to supplement the packs, and then participate in distribution. (Allergy-free packs are also available.) During the school year, this involves assembly and bulk delivery to partner schools. In the summer it means teams of drivers distributing packs to homes.

Grace Northridge, where Kingman attends services, provides about 1,000 packs per week during the school year. The congregation raised enough money during The Big Give to sponsor a program at First Baptist Church, which has provided a new wave of volunteers. Grace Northridge has also helped establish El Rey Cristo ministry at Christ the King Catholic Church on the Eastside, which incorporates Snack Pak into its food pantry program.

Other churches, temples, and civic groups also sponsor Snack Pak programs at schools in San Antonio, Alamo Heights, North East, and Northside ISDs, totaling 1, 400 packs distributed per week during the school year. The summer program distributes 590 packs per week.

The program also provides meals for summer programs and camps in the area. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

Food Has to Be Good

Under the Obama administration, federal standards for school nutrition tightened. A tiered system championed by former first lady Michelle Obama focused on more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and reduced sugar and sodium.

Current Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue halted the implementation of the standards just short of the final tier, which focused mainly on decreased sodium, Arredondo said. She feels confident that the SAISD food program is in a good place, even if it does not meet the top tier requirements every day.

“I would put our variety and quality up against anyone,” Arredondo said.

The SAISD program balances food groups and food color, a good indicator of diverse nutrients, with flavors children want. Kids participate in developing menus, and Arredondo’s team modifies favorite foods, like tacos, to make the ingredients healthier. They may substitute turkey for beef, whole grain for white flour, and fresh fruit for canned. Students in culinary programs in district high schools also contribute recipes they have developed themselves.

“The way we present it and getting kids involved means they get lots of variety,” Arredondo said. 

Dr. Steven Abrams, chair of the department of pediatrics and a professor of pediatrics for the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin, encourages those in charge of kids’ nutrition to hold the line. Even without regulations, Abrams encourages a family-based approach to improving childhood health issues, obesity in particular, which are “epidemic.”

“The fundamental issue is that the level of obesity of children in the U.S. has leveled off, but it’s still too high,” Abrams said.

Driving the suspension of more rigorous nutrition standards, Abrams adde, is the marketing of sugary, cheap foods. “For some people that’s what they want: inexpensive food.”

Excess sugar persists in the diets of low-income kids, mostly because of price and availability. Extra sugar in various forms is the cheapest way to make food more appealing to children. They choose it when it’s available, which it usually is, because it is inexpensive. “Where people get into trouble is when it comes to kids making choices,” Abrams said. “Food insecurity affects the choices kids make.”

Changing this is a matter of moderation and training, according to Abrams. If children are given water in place of juice on a regular basis, they will drink it. Fruit can be substituted for dessert. Compromises don’t have to be severe either, Abrams said. He doesn’t have a problem with the reduced sugar chocolate milk.

Snack Pak tries to find that balance as well, Kingman said. The program is based in Amarillo, where a nutritionist works to ensure that while the food may be “snack” style food, it still meets nutritional standards.

While some have criticized the food in the packs, which includes a beef stick, Kellogg’s Nutrigrain bar, and other “snack” food, Kingman encourages them to look closer. Because the packs are meant to go to children as young as 4 years old, the packaging has to be kid-friendly. All items must be shelf-stable, because there’s no saying what the storage situation in the home will be.

Snack Pak, which partners with Labatt Foods, also tries to anticipate which foods might compete well against junk food.

Students grab ketchup packets in the food line at Rhodes Middle School.
Students grab ketchup packets in the food line at Rhodes Middle School. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

When children watch television, they see commercials for name-brand foods, Kingman explained. If they see those brands in their pantry, they will be more likely to choose them. It also contributes to Snack Pak’s effort to add dignity to the process of food distribution. Kids feel like they have access to desirable foods when they see familiar brands, so Kingman wants to seize the moment of mass marketing working in favor of healthy eating choices.

That’s not to say that food marketing is the arbiter of balanced nutrition or quality food products. However, children do respond to marketing. Without a nutritionist at home to watch television and discuss snack options, Kingman feels it is important to meet kids where they are and begin to give them the tools they need to learn, grow, and eventually make the best choices for themselves.

Correction: a previous version of this article misstated the number of Snack Paks distributed during the school year. That figure has been updated.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.