Ending Hunger

At one Texas elementary school, they've come to be not-so-affectionately known as "throw-up Mondays," the first day of the week when teachers, custodial staff and even the principal brace for the big cleanup. The children, literally starving since their last complete meal -- school lunch the previous Friday -- show up early to the one place where they can count on being fed. Famished but smiling, they wolf down heaping Styrofoam bowls of cereal, fresh fruit by the branchful, and ice-cold cartons of milk, all at a pace their neglected, kid-sized stomachs just can't handle. Inevitably, someone's breakfast ends up on the floor.

March 19, 2013
Ending Hunger graphic

"Food insecurity" is its new, politically correct name. But no matter what you call it, hunger is still the same age-old problem -- and especially so in Texas, where more than 18 percent of the population, including one in four children, don't know where their next meal is coming from. Here in the richest country in the world, within the borders of a state leading the nation in cattle production, cotton production and job growth, people -- millions of them -- are hungry.

Research indicates Texas has enough resources to feed all its citizens. Yet 4.6 million remain food insecure, making it one of the hungriest states in the U.S. Worse, in recent years as much as $6 billion in annual federal and state food program assistance has gone unused.

"The resources are right in front of us; they have been all along," says Jeremy Everett, MDiv '01, founder and director of Baylor University's Texas Hunger Initiative (THI). "It's time to re-think how we, as a nation, run our social assistance programs."

In 2009, Everett started THI in a parking garage office space as a collaborative project within the Baylor School of Social Work. He had the experience, having led successful hunger programs in other parts of the state. He had the education, with undergraduate and divinity degrees from Samford University and Baylor, respectively. Most of all, he had the heart, believing any kind of work alleviating hunger "should be done not just to make things better, but to end it."

A small enterprise serving a behemoth land mass made for challenging logistics, Everett admits, and still he occasionally and humorously laments "not having started the Rhode Island Hunger Initiative instead." But with a focused energy on its Texas-sized vision, THI already has met and exceeded expectations in its not-quite-four years of existence.

So far it has raised nearly $30 million in grant funding -- including several large, multi-year sponsorships from prominent corporate foundations like Walmart and ConAgra Foods -- along with a stable of advisory work on contract with various branches of state and federal government. Though financially independent, THI functions as a serving arm of the university thanks to a partnership that has opened to it Baylor's treasure trove of intellectual resources, networking opportunities and the intangible but elemental power of its Christian compassion. For Baylor, THI confirms a commitment to the university's Pro Futuris strategic vision, which aspires in part to foster a culture "where our Christian faith, in conjunction with our expertise and resources, inspires a desire to address systematic problems facing our community."

"Pro Futuris identifies the university -- our human and material resources -- as a means to a greater end," Everett says. "In this case, the greater end is in figuring out how to bring about the kingdom of God here on earth by ending hunger in Texas with the help of Baylor's internal capabilities. Being anchored here gives us the ideal climate to achieve that goal through authentic, informed engagement."

Everett says. "In this case, the greater end is in figuring out how to bring about the kingdom of God here on earth by ending hunger in Texas with the help of Baylor's internal capabilities. Being anchored here gives us the ideal climate to achieve that goal through authentic, informed engagement."

THI's quantifiable, methodized strategy, Everett continues, is the cornerstone to its goal of positioning Baylor and Texas as leaders in eradicating hunger via a replicable model intended for use throughout the U.S. and beyond. Though not yet fully developed, its infrastructure already has garnered exploratory partnerships with groups in New Mexico, Louisiana and Florida.

"The nation looks to Texas as a predictor of demographic and economic changes in the U.S. at large," Everett explains. "Whatever happens, happens here first."

According to Everett, THI in the next few years will have amassed a rich collection of evidence-based data proving its legitimacy as a universal model to end hunger. Eventually, through a combination of leveraging its grant dollars and continuing to holistically utilize university resources, THI aims one day to become a fully independent, endowment-driven entity while making Baylor the premier university-based poverty research center in the country.

What all that means to THI Director of Research Kathy Krey is, in simple terms, "turning reams of spreadsheet figures into something actionable." Tasked with responsibility for THI's "informed engagement" component, Krey has developed and maintains a 10,000-foot view of hunger in Texas.

"We focus on many of the existing measures of hunger in any community -- school breakfast and lunch programs, backpack programs, summer food programs and other forms of assistance to benefit children, primarily," she says. "Disappointing though not entirely shocking, what we found is that of the students who are eligible, very few of them actually participate."

Of course, for years studies have shown a direct correlation between good nutrition and the ability to learn. Between test scores of children who eat breakfast and of those who don't. Between the study habits of kids who are fed over the weekend and of those who go hungry. Between truancy rates in kids who rely on free or reduced school lunch and those whose families can afford to pay the full amount.

Yet even in some of Texas' poorest, hungriest communities, less than 10 percent of those eligible for aid actually take advantage of it. Most of them, Krey says, fall through the cracks simply because they don't know help exists. Children who qualify for free or reduced school lunch during the year go hungry for three months because their parents don't know about the school district's summer meal program. Limited-quantity, emergency food supplies routinely are depleted by families who, in many cases because both parents are employed, never thought they could qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

"A problem this big isn't going to be solved by anyone alone, not even the government," Krey says.

But government, Everett points out, must be a part -- and therefore, a partner. Soon after THI's inception, Everett's became a familiar handshake in Texas state legislature and Capitol Hill circles. THI established key partnerships with high-post officials at agencies like the USDA and the Texas Department of Agriculture. Out of the gate, it bid on and won contracts to manage several state-run hunger programs. But even in doing so, this fledgling faction embraced the non-traditional view of hunger as a local problem rather than a state or federal one.

"Texans recognize the massive debt and deficits that are being wrestled with in Washington," says Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, "and regardless of the accuracy or lack thereof, food program funding comes under fire in that argument more often than not. THI has created an opportunity for accountability and transparency by administering programs with direct community involvement from the people who see the need in their own neighborhoods."

On the home front, THI began tackling a systemic issue from the bottom up, the inside out. Everett and his supporters birthed a grassroots approach to build local teams from local residents, cultivating leaders from within the communities where they already were invested.

One of those leaders is Carol Hiebert, who, along with fellow San Angelo resident Mary Herbert, helped establish one of THI's very first pilot projects. In West Texas' Tom Green County, 60 percent -- around 8,600 -- of the community's students received free or reduced school lunches.

"As part of a mission-focused visioning project at our church, Southland Baptist, what emerged was the very prominent issue of hunger in our community," Hiebert says. "Our goal became to grow the summer meal program because we recognized the need for these children to be fed not just during the school year but year-round."

With guidance from THI, Hiebert and Herbert sent letters, scheduled meetings and reached out to every government representative, school leader and faith-based organization they could find. In all, they welcomed 20 community representatives, including San Angelo's mayor, school district president and food bank director, to a kick-off meeting that winter, where media coverage was generous thanks to their proactive pitches to local radio and TV stations. Along with other community volunteers they spent the next several months distributing flyers, bringing in sponsorships and coordinating lunch sites, menus, cooks and servers. They set up volunteer training and secured health department permits. They even wrote an opinion piece for the San Angelo newspaper to spark public interest.

That summer, the program -- which the year before had served just 1,000 meals -- exploded into a 12-site network that five days per week dished up kid-friendly fare like hot dogs, spaghetti, pizza and fried chicken, as well as plenty of fruits and vegetables. Powered entirely by volunteers, it redefined community collaboration. A Baptist church group prepared food to be transported and served out of a Catholic church. A Methodist church had the same arrangement with another Baptist church. One group served out of a city park. All in all during the seven-week run, 17,260 plates were filled and cleaned.

"It was wonderful to see the children being fed, but even better were the connections we saw being made that summer," Hiebert says. "Now it's like a big family reunion each year. These aren't just the kids we see for a few weeks during the summer. They're the ones who come up to you at Walmart with a smile and a big hug, and say, 'I know you!'"

Success in San Angelo illustrated the effectiveness of THI's locally focus model. But it also reignites the question of who's ultimately responsible for solving community hunger issues and, perhaps even more critical, who's able to.

"A lot of people feel like the church and the community, not the government, should be the ones addressing poverty and hunger," Everett says. "They are, and should be involved, there's no doubt. The church needs to be that prophetic voice -- the vehicle to serve kids during the summer or to facilitate emergency food pantries throughout the year. They're the frontline folks to help build the system. But it would be extremely shortsighted to consider even for a moment that the very limited resources of the church could feed 4.6 million hungry people in our state."

The fact is, less than 2 percent of the funding necessary to ensure access for food-insecure families currently is provided by charitable organizations. Programs like SNAP, Everett explains, offer an essential safety net to protect low-income, working-poor families, and in particular their children.

"Unfortunately there are widespread stereotypes connected with SNAP and other government-run food assistance programs," he says. "Many people view poverty and hunger as the results of bad choices, essentially placing blame on the poor for being poor. They imagine someone who's unemployed, buying Cheetos and soda at the grocery store and spending their day watching a big-screen TV, reclined on a plush sofa in the middle of their air-conditioned living room. This is, frankly, an egregious and uninformed view, a sweeping lack of public policy understanding."

Rather, a full 75 percent of SNAP-eligible individuals are employed, though many are underemployed or working multiple part-time jobs and receiving no benefits. In addition, a majority of food assistance programs supply food-direct benefits, not currency. Only about 2 percent of Texas' 4.6 million hungry receive cash assistance.

"Where THI fills a crucial gap is in getting the word out to local communities that these programs exist," says Bill Ludwig, USDA southwest regional administrator.

Ludwig, who oversees a five-state region, believes THI is on the right track by bringing together "the right people for the right purpose" in order to maximize appropriate use of government programs and the efficient spending of its dollars.

"THI has come a long way in a very short period of time," he says. "It has proven it can work with all the various personalities, communities, denominations and organizations we need to be involved in solving the hunger problem in Texas. More importantly, it brings them into one meeting and onto the same page. [Everett] has provided extraordinary leadership in a complicated political, social and economic environment."

Conceding politics are a major hurdle, especially since "bipartisanship has eroded" even for hunger-related legislation, Everett says THI must tailor its strategy to appeal to both sides of the aisle, despite residing in a largely conservative-controlled state.

"Ours is a fresh voice in the national landscape of hunger and poverty, and also in Washington," he says. "Typically it's been the progressives, usually Democrats, to deal with the issue in D.C. But the way we've done things in the past is not financially sustainable. Right now the system isn't designed to move people from financial poverty to financial independence. THI uses a much smaller lens, bringing people together in a whole new way."

To untangle a knotted web of well-intentioned but disconnected constituents, THI has grown to more than 100 employees in 12 regional offices, in addition to its home office in Waco. Localized food planning associations (FPAs) operate under the direction of food organizers like Shamethia Webb, BSW '07, who oversees the McLennan County FPA. In Baylor's own backyard, she says, the need is great. Food pantry lines several dozen deep are common. At mobile distribution sites, the hungry arrive by foot or bike from across town, and kids will show up in August wearing winter coats, hoping to pack away an extra can of soup or loaf of bread for their starving siblings waiting at home.

"It's consistent," Webb says. "It's almost hard to watch sometimes, it's so consistent."

Engaging a collection of community stakeholders, including representatives from Waco ISD, the McLennan County Hunger Coalition, the Salvation Army, local food pantries, area churches and more, Webb mobilizes six work groups to implement THI's strategic plan.

"Relationships at the local level are by far the most valuable tool we have," says the Waco native and Baylor alumna. "More than most, I can see that firsthand in our work. So much of what I love is here; it's home to me. What I've learned is there is no other solution but to link arms when you encounter a weight this heavy. The strength of the links determines the quality of the results."

And as for those results, the early figures are in. Last year, school breakfast participation increased by 15 million meals. Summer food programs served more than one million additional lunches. And though not statistically attributable to one organization alone, THI's policy of trickle-up economics seems to be working.

"Poverty has my heart, and hunger has my head," Everett says. "History has its way of judging a generation; I believe this one will be judged by what we did -- or didn't do -- about hunger and poverty. We have the resources and the knowledge base to further the cause. My hope is that our children can look back and be proud of what we chose to do with them."

Texas Hunger Initiative