A father and daughter walk to their vehicle with a bag of produce. Photo by Scott Ball.
Children need their fathers in their lives – their money, yes, but also their time, companionship, affection, and guidance. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Hunger is a complex, national issue but for many families, it simply means a choice between buying food or paying rent. The causes and effects of this choice and similar dilemmas were the center of discussion on Wednesday during a first-of-its-kind hunger and poverty summit in San Antonio on Wednesday.

“Health, food insecurity, education, or employment are connected to hunger,” said Desmina Alexander, a child hunger outreach specialist with the San Antonio Office of Baylor University’s Texas Hunger Initiative (THI) that is dedicated to ending food insecurity through collaborative efforts with regional and federal governments, nonprofits and regional leaders.

“We want to create a dialogue, and we want people to walk away feeling like they’re empowered to be advocates in the community,” she said to more than 100 attendees THI’s summit at the Whitley Center at the Oblate School of Theology. The audience included City employees, individuals from regional nonprofits, and local public health experts.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who gave the event’s keynote speech and a panel of regional experts – including Dr. Rogelio Saenz, dean of the UTSA School of Public Policy; Dr. Adelita G. Cantu of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio School of Nursing; and Eric Cooper, San Antonio Food Bank president and CEO – who shared ideas on causes and effects of hunger, as well as possible solutions to these deeply interrelated issues.

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From left: Dr. Adelita G. Cantu of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio School of Nursing; Dr. Rogelio Saenz, dean of the UTSA School of Public Policy; and San Antonio Food Bank President and CEO Eric Cooper speak on a health and poverty panel. Photo by Lea Thompson.

About 25% of children living in San Antonio are considered “food insecure,” Alexander said. “That’s roughly 120,000 kids, so there’s a huge need in the city for these existing federal programs, which have shown to be effective towards ending hunger.” 

Federal school programs currently provide free or discounted breakfasts and lunches to students – which are sometimes the only meals they eat each day. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which helps fund those programs, expired in 2015.

Though the bill just passed in the Senate, the House’s recent bill revisions threaten to narrow which schools will qualify for help, Doggett said.

“The proposal that we have in the House would have the effect of terminating school eligibility for 7,000 schools or about 3 million children across the country,” Doggett said. “Instead of doing that, what we need to be doing is expanding (federal food welfare programs). This is all part of a connected battle.”

Other programs like the Food Bank’s Summer Food Service Program feed children who usually depend on school for breakfast and lunch, and helps supplement those meals during the summer break. More programs, Doggett said, are needed to ensure that our most vulnerable populations, especially children and senior citizens, are able to lead healthy lives.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Dogget (D-Texas) discusses federal food welfare. Photo by Lea Thompson
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Dogget (D-Texas) discusses federal food welfare. Photo by Lea Thompson

Hunger can be solved by going shopping at a grocery store, Cantu said, while food insecurity means there’s “no food in the fridge and no resources to put food there. … There’s a lot of people in Texas that don’t know where their next meal will come from.”

Hunger and food insecurity are affected by income, geography, or proximity to healthy foods, and education. Malnutrition can severely impact and limit the health and success of multiple generations, she said.

“I often tell my students, ‘If you tell me where you live, I can tell you what your life expectancy is,’” Cantu said. More affluent areas tend to have fairly priced produce because there are multiple stores competing for the same customers. But in food deserts, healthy, affordable foods are often more difficult to find due to a lack of competition.

“You can find a head of lettuce in a food desert for twice the price of that same lettuce in a more affluent neighborhood,” she said.

Education and race are also factor in to how likely a population will live in food desert or be able to escape poverty.

Most people are “just a paycheck away from poverty,” said Saenz, and San Antonio has higher poverty rates compared to the rest of the state while Texas has higher rates compared to the rest of the country.

Latino and African-American families are almost four times as likely to live in poverty compared to non-Hispanic white individuals, Saenz said. Living in poverty means there are fewer opportunities to pursue higher education or employment outside that zip code. For families with limited incomes, financial costs like housing, childcare or car maintenance take priority over quality food.

“It truly affects generations,” Saenz said.

There were several employees from the City’s Early Head Start Program including Christina Fitzgerald and Rachelle Kight, who work at the Head Start facility in the Westside 

“Our office is located in the city’s poorest (zip code, 78207),” Fitzgerald said. “We’re in the right place to make a difference … But how do we do that?”

Christina Fitzgerald, an employee of the City's Early Head Start Program, signs up for small group discussions during the hunger summit. Photo by Lea Thompson
Christina Fitzgerald, an employee of the City’s Early Head Start Program, signs up for small group discussions during the hunger summit. Photo by Lea Thompson

“We feed heavy on Mondays and Fridays,” Kight said, providing a short-term and sobering solution. Calorie-heavy meals will at least help children get ready for a weekend without access food and provide them with a boost when they return to school.

Following the panel discussion, attendees were invited to network and discuss possible solutions to food insecurity and hunger in Texas. Changing the public’s attitude to food welfare programs and pushing for policy changes that create walkable neighborhoods were just a few of the suggestions.

The U.S. spends more money on healthcare than any other country in the world, Cooper said, but “imagine how much we could save if that money was spent on healthy foods?

“It’s all about the right food, in the right amount, at the right time,” Cooper told the audience. “Aligning that (solution) together takes organizations like the Texas Hunger Initiative, to our government, to local nonprofits like yours.”

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Top Image: A father and daughter walk to their vehicle with a bag of produce.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Lea Thompson

Lea Thompson, a former reporter at the Rivard Report, is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events.