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'Meals on the Bus' Works to Alleviate Summer Hunger

During the summer, some students on free or reduced lunches and their families turn to summer feeding programs to get the meals they need. Waco ISD is initiating a new program to try and boost participation in the program.

Summer has officially begun…And I’m back on a bus. This time it’s a school bus. Waco ISD’s using it to feed students on the free and reduced lunch program—even during the summer.

Jill Sanders is a food service manager at Waco ISD. She supervises the Meals on the Bus Program.

“Basically what we’re doing, this program, is to reach the children who cannot make it to one of the either school sites or community sites and hopefully this will enable us to feed more children,” Sanders said.

The program is managed by Waco ISD. Two special needs buses weave around town to 10 apartment complexes, parks or churches in East, North and South Waco as well as in Robinson. They’re searching for students on free or reduced lunches—trying to make sure they get nutritious meals during the summer.

On today’s menu is one ham sandwich with some fruit, vegetables, yogurt and milk. Kids and family members eat the food either on the air-conditioned bus or at a table nearby.

Seven people show up to eat on the bus at S.J. Guthrie Park. After some coaxing and prodding, parent Maria Romero gets her young children on the bus and is served a plate.

“This on the bus is great because we can take the kids to park or the library," Romero said. "We finish and the food is right there so, we don’t have to worry to go and cook or nothing… this is really, really helpful.”

The bus serves a little over 50 students at the E-O-A-C Charter School in North Waco. EOAC Principal Sabrina Gray says most of the students at her school come from low-income backgrounds.

“When parents don’t have money and when they’re stressed out and when they’re hot and their kids are hungry," Gray said. "So if this could be one way to alleviate a strain on a family I think that’s something we need to look at.”

But at New Light Baptist Church and Zion Hill Baptist Church, participation is low... even non-existent.

Kelsey Miller with the Texas Hunger Initiative says 89-percent of Waco ISD students are on free or reduced lunches. And she says when school’s out, hunger spikes in the area.

“Topically right now, we’re in the midst of summer, and summer is a really crucial time for hunger, particularly for children," Miller said. "So we know that children throughout the year who have access to federally funded meals through the school no longer have access to that if school is out.”

27.1 percent of children in McLennan County are food insecure according to the Texas Hunger Initiative. That’s slightly better than Texas’ rate of 27.4 percent, but the state ranks ninth worst in the nation for child food insecurity. 2.4 million Texas children qualify for free or reduced lunches. But statewide, last year only 11 percent of those students participated in summer food programs.

Miller says that number doesn’t reflect average daily participation rising by 7.1 percent in McLennan County from 2012 to 2013. By addressing the two biggest barriers on the local level: transportation and access… participation could rise even more.

“Transportation definitely becomes the number one barrier," Miller said. "And then access more broadly, we look at that as whether or not there are safe locations where children can cross streets. Or if they’re worried about violence or about parents who are too busy to take them to sites that are too far away.”

Sanders with Meals on the Bus says they’re trying to boost the number of students who use summer feeding programs in Waco.

"Eighty percent of the kids who we know need food during the summer aren’t getting it. And that’s what this program is all about,” Sanders said.

Sanders says so far participation has fluctuated. And sites where turn out is low might change throughout the summer. They’re trying to figure out more ways to get the word out about the program. She says funding left over from the grant could go into playing music from speakers on the bus. She also wants to start putting banners out in front of sites.

“We’re trying to track things and see why and maybe do something different as far as outreach but we’re still in the beginning stages and trying to feel our way through this and make adjustments as we go on,” Sanders said.

Sanders says she hopes the Meals on the Bus program will feed just as many kids as are fed at on site programs. She says it’s not only about making sure they’re getting food but also the nutrition they need during the summer.