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Nearly 1.7 million Texas kids are at risk of going hungry

Two volunteers sort packages of food into piles and fill into a grocery bag another volunteer is holding.
Yfat Yossifor
/
KERA
Volunteers Koung Jang and Dur Alhamami pack food into boxes for the Food for Kids program at the North Texas Food Bank in Plano in March 2023.

A new report from the nation’s food bank network found the share of Texans as risk of going hungry went up again. Families with young children and Black and Latino households face the greatest food insecurity. Only six states had higher rates of hunger risk than Texas, according to the latest Map the Meal Gap report from Feeding America.

Across Texas, 1 in 6 Texas households could not afford enough nutritious food in 2022, according to the latest data that’s available, which amounts to nearly 5 million Texans. That food insecurity rate increased for a second year in a row, up from 1 in 7 the previous year.

Texas also had the largest number of people at risk of hunger, surpassing California for the first time.

The data shows what food banks already knew, said Trisha Cunningham, president and CEO of the Plano-based North Texas Food Bank: More and more households were struggling to make ends meet as inflation went up faster than wages, and government assistance programs expanded during the pandemic were scaled back, leaving people with fewer resources and rising costs.

“Our neighbors in every zip code faced increasingly difficult daily choices about buying groceries, paying for childcare, gas, medicine, or other necessities. Unfortunately, that dilemma continues to persist today,” Cunningham said.

At the same time, private donations to the food bank are down, government supports have been flat even as costs have shot up, and donations of goods from the food industry have grown more challenging to sustain, Cunningham said.

That’s impacted every food bank in the wider Feeding Texas network, Cunningham said.

Last month, the Fort Worth-based Tarrant Area Food Bank said it was at risk of running short of food to meet increased summer need.

“The rise in child hunger documented by the report substantiates what we have been witnessing in our service area firsthand.” said Tarrant Area Food Bank CEO Julie Butner in a statement about the new Feeding America statistics. “Fortunately, we have been bracing for summer hunger by expanding partnerships with local agencies, especially our schools by increasing the number of in-school markets through our new Ready To Learn initiative, which provides children with the nutrition needed to thrive in class and during the summer break.”

The most vulnerable

Among households with children, hunger risk was even more severe: Close to 1 in 4 were food insecure, leaving almost 1.7 million children at risk of going without adequate nutrition, the report found. About 40% of food insecure Texans were children, Cunningham said.

“We're actually getting ready to go through the hungriest time of the year right now,” Cunningham said. “These families that are already struggling to put meals on the table for their children in the evening, when their kids are out of school, they have ten extra meals per week to be able to provide their families.”

Food banks have been struggling to keep up with surging need in the wake of the pandemic. Last month, the Tarrant Area Food Bank raised alarms that it could run short of food to meet the needs of households in its 13-county service region.

Compared to white households, Black households faced nearly three times the rate of hunger and Latino households saw more than double that of white households. About 10% of white households, 23% of Latino households and 28% of Black households were food insecure.

volunteers carry bags with food to vehicles in a line
Yfat Yossifor
/
KERA
Tai Lewis, right, carries bags of groceries to a vehicle during a North Texas Food Bank and Tarrant Area Food Bank drive-thru food distribution event Thursday, March 9, 2023, at Westside Baptist Church in Lewisville.

Benaye Wadkins Chambers, who leads South Dallas-based Crossroads Community Services, said these statistics are unsurprising against the backdrop of racial income and wealth gaps.

“That’s not justice,” Wadkins Chambers said.

Wadkins Chambers said system changes are needed to increase the availability of affordable, healthy foods in southern Dallas. Residents of southern Dallas often must drive several miles further to access full-service grocery stores than their neighbors in the wealthier northern part of the city.

Those without the ability to get there often rely on dollar stores or convenience stores that don’t stock produce, high quality proteins or healthy dairy products. That leaves many families relying on high-salt and high-sugar to meet their calorie needs.

“And so you also see populations in southern Dallas with the highest concentration of diabetes and high blood pressure and why? Because these are the food choices,” Wadkins Chambers said.

Leaving help on the table

The data also indicates a challenge facing many Texas households that are food insecure: More than half earn too much money to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is often called food stamps. That means half of the state’s households that can’t afford to buy enough food to meet their basic needs also can’t enroll in the nation’s leading tool to prevent hunger and malnutrition.

“We are serving the working poor. These individuals have jobs. Sometimes they have two and three jobs and they are slightly … above what the SNAP qualifications are and they don't make it,” Wadkins Chambers said. “But these are the very poor families that are in that gap that absolutely are struggling. Their household is struggling. And therefore then, of course, we're seeing that the children are struggling.”

Teresa Jackson, who runs the Mesquite-based anti-poverty group Sharing Life, said Texas lawmakers have chosen to leave federal money on the table by not expanding SNAP eligibility to more working poor families.

While SNAP is federally funded, it’s administered by the states. Federal law allows states to provide SNAP benefits to families making up to 200% of the federal poverty line, but Texas sets a stingier limit, capping eligibility to 165% of the federal poverty line.

“SNAP dollars create a rise in the economic good of your community because every SNAP dollar that goes out means there's a grocery store worker employed, there are manufacturers of food that are employed, there are farmers that are employed,” Jackson said. “So it's not just the benefit to that immediate family and them being able to put a healthy meal on the table. There's also a great economic impact to the greater community.”

The University of North Texas at Dallas partnered with the North Texas Food Bank by providing a mobile food drive on Friday, March 17th, 2023. The drive-thru service was free and available for anyone in need of support.
Emily Nava
/
KERA
The University of North Texas at Dallas partnered with the North Texas Food Bank by providing a mobile food drive on Friday, March 17th, 2023. The drive-thru service was free and available for anyone in need of support.

The food bank network’s data shows that Texas households, on average, needed an extra $21.36 per week to meet their nutrition needs. Statewide, that amounts to an estimated $3.1 billion in total additional spending power that food insecure families needed to be self-sustaining.

Meeting the need

There is good news, Cunningham said. The food bank’s data shows they’ve been able to effectively meet the vast majority of the food insecurity in the 13 counties they serve, either directly or through the nearly 500 community partner organizations that run food pantries or give out groceries.

Last year, she said the North Texas Food Bank distributed 144 million meals, doubling its distribution in the past five years.

But it’s come at a price: The food bank has had to spend millions of extra dollars to buy food because government support and private food industry donations are falling increasingly short of meeting the need.

Before the pandemic, the food bank spent about $5 million to buy food to supplement in-kind donations from food producers and government supports. Now, she said the food bank is spending more than $25 million a year to close the gap and dipping into cash reserves to cover the need.

The food bank, Cunningham said, is focused on not just providing emergency food to help people who run out of food before they get their next paycheck. The food bank is focused on helping people enroll in social services, find job training programs, or identify other ways to increase their self-sufficiency.

The food bank has also invested in community partner organizations, fundraising to provide $6 million in grants for trucks or other logistical equipment and to help the groups expand services that help vulnerable families get benefits and other aid to meet their needs, like enrolling in SNAP or Medicaid.

In North Texas, food insecurity was slightly lower than the state average, with about 1 in 7 households unable to pay for adequate nutrition in the 25 counties in and around Dallas-Fort Worth that are served by the Tarrant Area Food Bank and the North Texas Food Bank. Still, nearly 1.3 million North Texans were at risk of going hungry.

That tracks with national data from Feeding America that shows the counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are mostly rural and mostly in the South.

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at cconnelly@kera.org. You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

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Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.