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A Challenge For Texas Schools: Summer Meals

Photo: Nada Atieh
Students line up for breakfast at Adams Elementary in Arlington. The district is expanding its summer meals program to about 50 locations this year.

When school's out, Texas schools are giving low-income kids free meals in the summer. The problem is five out of every six kids who are eligible don’t show up. However, the Arlington school district is trying to turn that around. 

Just before 8 a.m. at Adams Elementary School in Arlington, the cafeteria is buzzing with 400 kids talking, laughing and eating breakfast.

“I learn about math and I learn how chickens come out of eggs,” says Khamari Montijo-Murphy, who’s 7. “I learn that in summer school you have to be good to respect the rules.”

Khamari and other kids here are tearing into their breakfast sausage pizza. Sitting next to him is his mom Jazmine, who joins him every morning for breakfast. Services like this make a big difference for families like hers.

“It’s very helpful because if we do not have the funds or we only have such amount of food at home, it’s good to know that we can come here,” she said. “He’s a growing boy, so it’s not a moment that he does not want to munch or eat multiple times a day.”

Last summer, the Arlington Independent School District served 92,471 breakfasts and 132,755 thousand lunches. That doesn’t include snacks, and in some locations, dinner.

This year, the district is trying to reach more families by adding schools and serving meals during activities like football, cheer and band camp

Still, a surprising number of low-income families in Texas aren’t taking advantage of the free food. And that’s costing the state $56 million federal dollars a year – more than any other state. That’s according to the Food Research & Action Center, which released a report this month.

“It’s a huge concern from USDA’s perspective because there’s a very large gap of children who are eligible for those meals who are not receiving them in the summer time,” said Eddie Longoria, director of special nutrition programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “So that means that those children who are not receiving those meals are at risk of going back to the school in the fall and the possibility of them not being completely healthy.”

Longoria points out that more than 22 million kids are eligible for the national school lunch program, but the problem is only one in six of them gets a meal during the summer.

“That’s alarming for us,” Longoria said. “Because we know that a lot of those children may live in impoverished areas and the fact that maybe both mom and dad and guardians are at work all day and those children may not have food in their fridge…it’s very scary.”

Everyone from schools to non-profits are trying to get the word out. Parents can dial 211 or text the word “FOOD” to 877-877 to find the nearest location where summer meals are being served.

Leslie Johnston, spokeswoman for Arlington ISD, said there’s usually a site within walking distance for most families.

“Adding those two meals a day that students would ordinarily eat at school during the school year is very expensive for those families and so we want to make sure we’re still able to serve those students and make sure they’re staying healthy while they’re not with us.”

Kids can go to any school that’s serving food. It doesn’t have to be their school and they don’t have to be enrolled in summer classes. And, if mom or dad wants to come along, they can have a bite, too.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.