New Solutions to Childhood Hunger

By Sarah Centeno
Food for Kids Manager, Tarrant Area Food Bank

One Thursday afternoon, I visited an elementary school to meet with the counselor who coordinates the school’s BackPacks for Kids program in partnership with Tarrant Area Food Bank (TAFB). Every week, the school makes sure that students who rely on school meals during the week are able to have access to nutritious food on the weekend.

As we walked down the quiet, empty hallways carrying BackPacks for Kids bags full of granola bars, juice boxes and other items, the counselor told me about a first grade student who always makes sure to take home extra bags of food each week to share with his nine siblings. When we reached that child’s classroom, we found his teacher sitting at her computer entering grades. She shared how the student’s behavior has changed since receiving food from TAFB. She said that before this student participated in the BackPacks for Kids program, she would constantly have to redirect his attention as he was often more focused on his hunger pains than what she was teaching.

In the counties we serve, more than 200,000 children do not always know where their next healthy meal is coming from. At TAFB, we are working to change that through BackPacks for Kids and several other child feeding programs. On Monday, Feb. 8, we took another step forward in our work to ensure that children don’t have to go hungry by opening a school pantry at Brewer High School in Fort Worth. “Paw Pantry” is the first high school pantry that TAFB has helped open. We are excited to be able to partner with Brewer High School to ensure that the children in the White Settlement school district always have access to healthy and nutritious meals to help them grow and develop.

From Cradle to Career

While attending a Feeding America conference in Chicago, I came across a phrase that has stuck with me since: “cradle to career.” This concept focuses on making sure that a child has constant access to healthy food during their educational career. For so many children, getting a higher education is their opportunity to make a brighter future for themselves. By making sure they have access to healthy foods, we can help eliminate one of the struggles they face on that path.

Tarrant Area Food Bank’s programs have primarily focused on providing food to elementary schools, with a handful of middle and high schools participating. As these children get older, many of the food programs they relied on when they were younger are no longer available. As a mom to a 14-year-old boy, I know all too well how much these older children eat. With the cradle to career model in the forefront of my mind, I began thinking about ways that TAFB could provide food to children throughout their entire school career. Soon, we were on the road to creating a high school pantry.

When Katie Johnston joined TAFB’s Food for Kids team in April 2015, I asked for her help to make this vision a reality. She didn’t blink with hesitation—she just hit the ground running. After doing the research and collecting the information, we learned that the biggest obstacle was going to be finding a school that had the space to devote to this program. We needed room for families to walk in and shop, similar to a mini grocery store.

When we approached Brewer High School, Hannah Hughes, their social worker who also coordinates another TAFB child feeding program, jumped at the opportunity to be our pilot school for the program. This school had everything we were looking for: a room devoted to the pantry, a staff member to oversee the program, and the backing of the school and the district to make it successful. As the weeks passed and the pantry started to take life, it was an overwhelming experience to see.

This pantry will be a source of hope for the students and families of White Settlement ISD. They now have a place to go for nutritious food when they are in need. Katie said it best, “so many kids grow up really quickly, and sometimes we forget that the older kids need help too.”

Making the Vision a Reality

When the Paw Pantry opened on Feb. 8, the vision I carried in my head for so long was now real and I could not have envisioned the event going any better. White Settlement is a small, tight-knit community and it was incredible to see so many people there supporting this project. The amount of staff and administration across all White Settlement schools who showed up, many dressed in “Brewer Blue,” was just astonishing. You definitely got the sense that this community and district take great pride in the families that call the 76108 ZIP code home.

As people walked through the pantry, we constantly heard how amazing the room looked and just how many families are going to benefit from this pantry. Staff shared stories about children they know at their school who often go hungry and how the challenge of staying healthy and focused would now be minimized by these families having access to the Paw Pantry and other services TAFB provides.

One of the greatest success stories I heard came from Frank Molinar, the superintendent of White Settlement ISD. He shared how he moved to White Settlement with his mom and siblings when he was a child. He said that the act of one White Settlement ISD staff member helped change his path in life. It only takes one person to create a ripple effect and Mr. Molinar is proof of that.

Ending childhood hunger is no small task, but with the help of the passionate people we live around, work with and meet, we can collectively take on this battle. I invite you to join me in the fight to end childhood hunger by volunteering at TAFB. With the end of the school year quickly approaching, TAFB has various summer feeding programs that are in need of volunteers. Summer is one of the busiest times of the year for my team since children cannot access the free/reduced meals programs at their schools. Volunteering at TAFB is an experience you soon won’t forget because the joy you feel after spending time with these children keeps you wanting to come back.