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Summit Makes Plans to End Hunger in Texas

Aug. 31, 2009

By Vicki Marsh Kabat

No one in Texas should go hungry. Seem impossible? Not to a group of people who work daily to make sure everyone in the state gets a place at the table.

More than a dozen local, state and federal representatives of programs designed to feed the hungry met Aug. 21 at a Hunger Summit Planning Meeting at Baylor University to explore more effective ways of disseminating food.

Jeremy Everett, director of the Texas Hunger Initiative, which coordinated the event, said that THI's goal is to end hunger in Texas by 2015.

"One reason we haven't ended hunger already is lack of organization," he said. Texas is the third hungriest state in the nation, he said, with 1.3 million people experiencing hunger daily. "We have enough food, we just need to distribute it to people more efficiently."

THI is a collaboration of Baylor's Center for Family and Community Ministries and the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It will develop and implement strategies to end hunger through policy, education, community organizing and community development.

Meeting participants set the agenda for a Food Policy Roundtable to be held at Baylor Nov. 19. Everett expects close to 250 attendees including representatives of advocacy groups; federal, state and local governments; non-governmental organizations; congregations; and social service providers. The first initiative of the Roundtable will be to increase participation of children in feeding programs in summer 2010. Everett said that Texas has the highest food insecurity rate among children in the nation. Food insecurity is defined as not knowing where they will find their next meal. Many of its 3 million children who participate in the free school lunch program go without a meal when school is not in session.

During the school year, the scenario is not much better. "Children eat a free breakfast at about 7 a.m. and their lunch at 11," he said. "For the next 20 hours, they have nothing to eat. That's why we have kids digging through Dumpsters for discarded food."

The statewide initiative to eliminate hunger dovetails with President Barack Obama's commitment to end childhood hunger nationally by 2015, said Bill Ludwig, regional administrator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Hunger issues are getting more attention during this administration than in any administration in the past," Ludwig said. "This is the first time I've ever seen the right people at the table who have money, volunteers and commitment to end hunger. I see this Hunger Summit as the beginning of ending hunger in Texas."

Rob Borowski with Texas IMPACT, a grassroots network advocating for social issues based in Austin, said it's also important to address rise of obesity in children. "My goal is to connect children's health not only through hunger and obesity but through environmental and ecological measures. We want to create a system so that these aspects don't become problems again in the future," he said.

The programs, tools and policies exist to end hunger in Texas, Ludwig said, but people eligible to receive nutrition benefits are not participating. "Only 55 percent of people who are eligible for food stamps in Texas are using the program. We have to raise participation rates."

One factor is the stigma that still exists with being 'on welfare,'" said Patricia Mancha, communication director with FNS. "It's not welfare, it's entitlement. It's about nutrition. Faith communities can really make an impact on this stigma," she said.

Summit participants talked about the need for "nutrition transformation" --helping people consider nutrition assistance programs (not food stamps) as a privilege, not a handout, and as a responsible way to care for their families.

"It's the people who have never been on the government programs who are the ones who feel the stigma," said Leslie Lankster, Food and Nutrition Service executive assistant and faith-based coordinator. "This myth can be dismantled from the pulpit."

J.C. Dwyer, state policy coordinator of Texas Food Banks, said that there has been a recent "sea change" in the approach to addressing hunger, moving from a charity model to a focus on policy. To end hunger in the next six years, he said, "we need organization, we need to build political will to make it happen, and we need to be willing to step outside our normal roles."

It also will be necessary to understand the larger picture of food production and distribution, said Suzii Paynter, director of the Christian Life Commission of the BGCT. "We need to include in this Summit discussion nutritionists, local farmers' markets, farm-to-plate approaches, food banks, food pantries," said Paynter, who helped launch THI at Baylor in early 2009. "One of the fallacies we have to confront is that we think someone else knows how to do this. They don't. We are it."

LIFT OUT INFO:

The summit group will meet again Sept. 11 to continue preparation for the Roundtable Nov. 19. For more information about the Roundtable or the Texas Health Initiative, contact Jeremy_Everett@baylor.edu or call 254-710-3946.