Kids across Texas have headed back to their classrooms, some for the first time since COVID-19 closed school campuses in March of 2020. While parents and teachers alike brace for another uncertain school year, there’s one thing we know for sure: kids learn better when they’re well-nourished. And school meal programs help kids get the nourishment they need.

The pandemic had a devastating impact on the economic stability of many Texas families. As many as 1 in 4 kids in Texas could be struggling with hunger as they re-enter the classroom this fall, including more than 120,000 kids right here in Bexar County. 

A viral photo from April 2020 illustrated for the entire nation just what pandemic-era food insecurity looked like when more than 10,000 cars lined up at Traders Village to receive food from the San Antonio Food Bank. The food bank reported a huge spike in the number of families they serve each week, which remains far above pre-pandemic levels today.

This hunger impacts every facet of a child’s life, including their ability to learn. At a time when many students are already facing a steep learning loss due to their time out of the classroom, we simply can’t afford another barrier to learning. Black, Latino, and low-income students saw the steepest learning loss of all, exacerbating existing racial and economic inequities.

The importance of ensuring children have access to food cannot be understated. Research shows that children who struggle with hunger not only have a harder time learning but are more likely to struggle with chronic illnesses, mental health issues, and behavioral problems. These problems can follow children throughout their lives, even impacting their financial prosperity in adulthood. 

Luckily, schools have one of the most powerful tools to combat childhood hunger at their disposal: school meal programs. These programs play a massive role in helping kids get the food they need, while also helping families stretch their food budgets. And the models that No Kid Hungry Texas has long advocated for and supported, like breakfast in the classroom and grab-and-go meals, are now proving critical to providing meals to students safely.

We know school meals have many benefits: not only are kids often getting their most nutritious meals of the day, but they’re also eating on a regular schedule with their peers and trusted adults, like teachers and administrators. Beyond nutritional value, these meals also provide stability and a sense of community, which can help kids heal from the trauma they’ve faced since the beginning of the pandemic. 

School meal programs will also be important for the future as we work to address critical issues like racial inequity and generational poverty in our school systems. San Antonio has the highest poverty rate of any major metropolitan city, and the poverty rate is disproportionately high among people of color. According to the latest census data, 24% of Black and 19% of Latino San Antonio residents live below the poverty line, compared to 10% of whites.

I’d be remiss not to mention that here in Texas, school kitchens never closed. Thanks to the compassion and innovative spirit of our school nutrition teams, bolstered by the flexibilities allowed by USDA waivers, meal programs were adapted to reach kids in their time of need. 

For example, at the start of the pandemic, San Antonio’s Southside ISD redeployed their bus drivers from transporting students to transporting meals to kids in the community. When students initially weren’t showing up to pick up meals, they got even more creative, installing a speaker on each of the buses to play the common melodies of an ice cream truck, prompting kids to come out and get a meal. They quickly saw participation jump from 800 kids a day to 2,300.

If it weren’t for these programs, working alongside expanded federal benefits like SNAP and Pandemic EBT, far more kids would be facing hunger today. These nutrition programs will continue to play a vital role as communities of all kinds, especially low-income families and people of color, navigate the financial hardships of the pandemic.

As students go back to school this fall, it doesn’t mean we should go back to normal. We have the opportunity to incorporate the lessons we’ve learned and build even stronger institutions for Texas children. While school meals are a critical lifeline now, they also help create a level playing field for future generations of students. As a city with a deep sense of civic pride, nourishing our kids is the smartest investment we can make to ensure that the kids of today are ready to tackle the challenges of tomorrow. 

Stacie Sanchez Hare

Stacie Sanchez Hare is the director of No Kid Hungry Texas, a campaign working to end childhood hunger by helping launch and improve programs that give all kids the healthy food they need to thrive. She...