For low-income families in Central Texas, summer brings added strain

June 20, 2017
Kids eat lunch at Travis High School on June 14. The Austin school district provides meals throughout the summer through its Summer Food Service Program to students who otherwise might not receive breakfast or lunch.

School may be out for summer, but at lunchtime on a recent Thursday at Travis High School dozens of children and teenagers packed into the cafeteria to scoop up such options as chicken lime tacos, veggie dippers and chocolate milk before taking their seats at long tables in the cafeteria.

By the end of summer, Austin Independent School District officials expect to serve more than 150,000 meals at 60 campuses as part of the Summer Food Service Program, which offers breakfast and lunch options to any child up to age 18 who comes through the doors during a scheduled mealtime, no identification needed. Because it’s a federally funded program, the district doesn’t foot the bill and children don’t need to be enrolled in the district or even be school age to benefit.

“In Austin ISD, 55 percent of our students receive free or reduced-price meals,” said Anneliese Tanner, the district’s director of nutrition and food services. “When school’s out, it’s really important that as a community we’re offering food access to kids who need it. Kids still need healthy food to grow and learn and play, even when school is out.”

Adjusting to new summer routines can be a challenge for anyone, but it can be especially difficult for Austin’s working low-income families who must seek out affordable day care and quality food options at a time of year when, due to increased temperatures, energy bills are spiking and money might be particularly tight.

“Our utility bills are higher during the summer, which means that the income goes a little less further than it normally does,” said Derrick Chubbs, president and CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank. “We’re finding that families are having to make decisions as to whether or not you pay for medicine or you buy food. The fact that costs during the summer are so much higher and their kids aren’t receiving the lunches they would normally receive in school puts an additional burden on them.”

Chubbs said in Central Texas, 1 in 4 children are at risk of hunger, a number that’s higher than the national average.

“That’s nothing to be proud of,” Chubbs said. “We’re so excited about showing up on every Top 10 cities list that we forget and lose sight of the fact that the growth and prosperity is also bringing a public health challenge right along with it.”

The Central Texas Food Bank, which last year distributed nearly 38 million pounds of food, is also offering programs to help combat hunger this summer. Like the school district, the food bank partners with the Agriculture Department for the Summer Food Service Program, distributing free meals and snacks at 75 Central Texas sites including community centers, parks and apartment complexes. It also just kicked off Summer Meals that Matter, a fundraising campaign that runs through Aug. 31 with a goal of collecting enough money to provide a million meals for kids, families and seniors.

“The face of hunger isn’t primarily homeless, and it isn’t primarily the unemployed. We have documented, evidence-based data that shows the vast majority of the people we serve are in fact working families who live under a roof that are just struggling to make ends meet, poor working families,” Chubbs said. “If there’s any word to get out, it’s reshaping the narrative and vision of what the face of hunger really looks like in Central Texas.”

Finding quality, affordable child care during the summer can be difficult, too. The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Austin Area is serving about 1,000 children through its various programs, and 84 percent of the youth it serves receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year, said Erica Gallardo Taft, the nonprofit’s chief operations and strategy officer. Its summer programming, which is available from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., is either offered for free or at a low cost. She called these affordable options vital to parents.

“Despite the fact that the vast majority of the kids that we serve receive free or reduced lunch or are considered economically disadvantaged, their parents still work. They don’t get summers off,” Gallardo Taft said. “When the schools are out they still have to work, and they really struggle finding someplace to keep their kids that is safe and fun and will help alleviate some of the summer learning loss that we know is a problem.”