Children, particularly those from low-income homes, have not seen a lot of support coming out of Austin or Washington, D.C., in 2017.
“There’s a lot of conversation throughout our country on how to reduce support to the poor and the needy,” San Antonio Food Bank President and CEO Eric Cooper said in a press conference Wednesday.
“Even just a minor cut has huge implications,” Cooper told the Rivard Report after the press conference. “The strategies to reduce the budget are balanced in these areas where there’s not enough voice or not enough priority.”
Meanwhile, the need grows, Cooper said. In the first week of summer 2016, the Food Bank provided 15,000 meals. This summer that number doubled.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich joined Cooper at KIPP San Antonio’s Cevallos Campus to call on the community to support the Food Bank. Popovich has had a passion for the issue of childhood food insecurity since learning that one in four Bexar County children goes hungry or is at risk of going hungry on any given day.
“To know that the kids are in this kind of situation is not just sad, it’s disgusting,” Popovich said.
He called on San Antonio’s generosity to help meet the growing need. For him, giving back is a vital part of his own well-being. “No matter how much you have…if it’s all about you, you’re going to be in big trouble.”
The Food Bank works with local nonprofits, community centers, and other places where kids convene. It distributes hot meals and healthy snacks to 160 sites around San Antonio including the Boys and Girls Club and Presa Community Center, Cooper said.
The Food Bank also hosts a food pantry, mobile food pantry, and a community garden.
“The right food in the right amount at the right time is the solution to hunger and nourishment,” Cooper said.
Volunteering time at the Food Bank is valuable help, Cooper said, and every dollar goes a long way. Through partnerships and non-perishable food donations, every $1 given to the Food Bank results in seven meals.
H-E-B has joined the partnership by providing ways for customers to donate in the checkout line. At each cash register, shoppers can tear off tags with $1, $3, or $5 values and contribute that amount to the San Antonio Food Bank.
Popovich recommended pulling more than one tag. “That big basket [of groceries] you’ve got there may mean you’re pretty fortunate and you can afford to give a buck,” he said.
Cooper and Popovich called on the community to lend its voice to the cause, socially and politically.
“Tell people [about the needs of the SA Food Bank]. Even tell people you don’t like,” Popovich said.
Cooper asked attendees to speak out against policies that increase barriers to federal and state food programs, as well as any threats to the school nutrition program.
One ray of light for children who go hungry during the school year, Cooper told the Rivard Report, was the passage of the Fairness in Feeding Act, a bill originally authored by State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123). After taking on a number of bipartisan co-authors, the bill was signed into law on Friday by Gov. Greg Abbott.
The new law allows children to take leftover lunch or breakfast items home, as long as food safety standards apply. The food must be packaged, ripe, or non-perishable. Students can collect from a lunch room “share table,” a communal table where students put items they are not going eat, or schools can use the leftover items to create food pantries for the community. Share tables have been used in some schools previously, but all food had to be consumed at lunchtime. Now students can take food from a share table home.
The new law also aims to prevent withholding food from children whose lunch accounts cannot cover the cost of their meals or who do not have the necessary cash on hand.
New Mexico recently outlawed the various tools schools used to identify children unable to pay, from wristbands to hand stamps that read “I need Lunch Money.” Some were made to work off their lunch with chores, others had their food taken away, others were given lower-quality lunches.
In Texas such practices are now illegal.
Bernal found that the bill gained bipartisan support, largely because it grew from a need expressed in the community rather than a partisan priority. “The part I’m most proud of is that this an issue we discovered by visiting with people and listening to them,” Bernal said. “It’s something I learned about in a conference room with a bunch of teachers and a principal.”
Before the 2017 Legislature convened, Bernal conducted a listening tour that took him to every school in his district – 55 in all. He got as far as school No. 2 before the issue of lunch and breakfast leftovers came up.
“It blew my mind,” Bernal said.
Like Cooper, Bernal sees hunger as a fundamental piece of the poverty puzzle. Kids have trouble learning and achieving success if they are hungry. If they cannot learn, it is hard to get the education they need to ultimately improve their situation. In adults hunger and poor nutrition precludes effectiveness at work and generates higher health care costs.
“Until you solve that one problem [hunger] you can’t start to address the other issues of poverty,” Cooper said. In his mind poverty alleviation programs should see bipartisan support, but that is not always the case.
In taking the bill to Austin, Bernal was careful to package it in such a way that it would not be politicized. He found that, as a real problem with a real solution, it did contain the language of both parties. On the one hand, providing more food to low-income kids through a public program could have been seen as a Democratic issue. Conserving food purchased with government funds could have been seen as a Republican issue.
The Fairness in Feeding Act kept its head above partisan waters and reminded Bernal of that governance is more effective if it is based on listening.
“People’s needs are so clear, it should be easy to help them,” Bernal said.
The Food Bank’s efforts compliment federal and state programs administered through public schools, and other nonprofit food distribution programs. Tomorrow the Rivard Report will take a closer look at those efforts.
The need is so widespread that it merits efforts from every sector, Cooper said. “We’re all weaving together to get the city covered.”