The Baylor University Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty recently announced a partnership to provide nearly one million nutritious meals weekly across the U.S. through a private/public partnership to ensure children are fed when school is not in session. The COVID-19 public health crisis has forced the closure of schools across the country, and the United States Department of Agriculture has called on Baylor to help meet the escalating need. In this Baylor Connections, Jeremy Everett, founder and executive director of the Collaborative, shares how they have responded to COVID-19, ramping up long-standing efforts to end hunger across the state of Texas and around the nation.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and our guest today is Jeremy Everett. Jeremy Everett is the founder and executive director of The Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. The Collaborative was formed last year on the 10th anniversary of the Texas Hunger Initiative, adding the Research Fellows Program, Global Hunger and Migration Project, Hunger Data Lab and other programs under the Collaborative umbrella. Texas Hunger Initiative has long partnered with federal and state agencies and faith and community based organizations to end food insecurity through programs, research, policy analysis, education and community organizing. Everett's book, I Was Hungry: Cultivating Common Ground to End an American Crisis, was released last year. And their efforts have accelerated even further in recent days with the COVID-19 public health crisis. It's forced the closure of hundreds of school districts throughout the state and many more throughout the nation. The Collaborative launched a website to inform families where children and their communities can still receive meals during these closures. COVID19TxFoodResources.org. And further, the Collaborative announced last week a nationwide partnership with the USDA, McLane Global and PepsiCo to deliver millions of meals directly to students in closed rural school districts. So it's been a very, very busy week for you all and what you all do. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us here on Baylor Connections today.
Jeremy Everett:Thanks for the invitation, Derek.
Derek Smith:Well, it's obviously always great to highlight the work you do, but it has taken on even more importance this week as families are grappling with school closures and very sadly, in many cases, be it health problems or loss of jobs. Many stresses. So hopefully food will be less of one. Will be less of one, In fact, thanks to the work that you're doing. And let's dive right in. So from the standpoint of the work you do, when you began to realize the scope of the COVID-19 public health crisis, what were some of the immediate questions and concerns that came to your mind?
Jeremy Everett:Well, as we began to think that schools were going to start to close, our first thought was, "Okay, how are the kids going to have access to meals?" We were able to work with our Texas Department of Agriculture, our Texas education agency and school districts around Texas quickly to develop a curbside meal model where schools could essentially open up, have a little curbside takeout spot where kids and their families could drive by and pick up a sack lunch or a sack breakfast on a daily basis. And though, initially when the schools began to close, we had about 200 different school districts that had announced closure. I think two days later we had 769 school districts that had announced closure. And so initially we were thinking, okay, how do we make sure that kids, at the very least, even though school's out, have access to meals? What ended up emerging through this conversation though, in partnership with USDA, is we had run a summer pilot called Meals-to-You last summer, and I can tell you a little bit about it. But essentially, we were mailing boxes of food to kids in rural East and West Texas who wouldn't have access to a summer meal site that was administered by USDA. They were just too rural. And so families couldn't possibly get in a car and drive 45 minutes one direction just for their kid to have a little sack lunch. It would have cost more in gas probably than they would've gotten in the sack lunch. And so this is a problem that's nationwide. And it's been a problem that Congress is trying to tackle looking at rural poverty in general, but certainly rural food insecurity among children. And so last summer, in about a 10 week period, we tested out a pilot for 4,000 kids, where we served about 480,000 meals and snacks. So it was great, worked very well. Worked very efficiently. And as the COVID crisis began to unfold, we realized that the curbside meal model was going to exclude the kids that we had worked so hard to reach last summer. And so we decided to expand it in partnership with USDA so that we could try to make it available to any rural district that felt like they needed it anywhere in the U.S.
Derek Smith:How do you scale that? I mean, Texas is a big enough issue to grapple with.
Jeremy Everett:Yeah, admittedly, I have never scaled a national program from my living room and so it's been a bit of a logistical challenge. I think I've spent more time on the phone in the last week than I have in my entire life added together. But we have a great team. We have team members who are great at innovation and strategy and implementing that. We have a great team working with wonderful Baylor administrators who are operationalizing it for us on the Baylor side of things. And then we've got field staff. We've got field personnel who are able to coordinate all of our efforts in Texas, which allow our leadership team to be able to focus on this national program. But a lot of our job with the Texas Hunger Initiative, even before we created The Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, was to develop scalable solutions to addressing hunger and poverty, whether that's domestic or global. And so that's how we're built and shaped from that space. And so we have a team of field personnel who work in real time with a team of about 60 researchers, half of whom are Baylor faculty and the other half are faculty at other universities. And then we're always taking what we learn and what we've evaluated, scaling it to other states to see what can work on a national level. And then working with USDA and with Congress to administer those kinds of national programs. So the formula was already there and we just probably scaled this last year's program a little bit faster than we normally would under the circumstances.
Derek Smith:In the title of your book, you talk about hunger as an American crisis. And it's a crisis that you are addressing, albeit one that probably a lot of us may be less so than now, maybe don't think about as much. Unless we start listening to people like you and talk about the work you do and the need that's so great out there. The fact that you are addressing this year round, how much did those preparations, as you talk about scaling things, set you up for when there is a true national crisis to build on that work that's been done?
Jeremy Everett:Well, you're right. I mean, we have 40 million Americans prior to the COVID-19 crisis that we're experiencing food insecurity. And most of those families experience it because of underemployment, meaning that they're employed, but they're hourly employees that you know are probably making 7.25 an hour. Even if you're able to put together full time hours, that's still only $13,000 a year. That's barely enough to afford rent in places like Waco. Now, when you think about the COVID-19 crisis, and a lot of those hourly employees are losing their jobs, things are getting pretty dramatic, and probably will for a while. And so I think for organizations like ours around the country, this is the time to really step up. And it's a time where you're grateful for lessons learned and grateful for research that points the direction of what is scalable and what to not waste your time on, and who are the right partners. And then how do you ensure that those partners have what they need to be able to get food to families very quickly? Obviously, most of us don't experience hunger or haven't experienced it very often in our lives. But when you go into the grocery store and you see very little on the shelves, I think that calls into question maybe some of these bigger life threatening situations that many people in our country face on a regular basis. But for the rest of us, it's certainly been called to our consciousness over the past week or two.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Jeremy Everett, founder and executive director of The Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. Jeremy, we mentioned, as you talked about scaling this Meals-to-You nationwide, you mentioned working with the USDA, there's corporations involved. And I know a big part of what you've done over the years has been working with organizations. We mentioned faith based organizations, school districts, there's private funds available that you've been able to make use of what. How much does that kind of embody the model that you've tried to build over the last 10 years and have built?
Jeremy Everett:Yeah. Well, our philosophy is that hunger and poverty are too big for any one person, one organization or one sector to address by themselves. You have to get all of the sectors working seamlessly together if you're going to address the world's biggest systemic problems that have oftentimes been pervasive for centuries, if not throughout all of human history. And so our model where we're bringing in the corporate sector, they have the logistical ability and the food capability to be able to scale significantly. And bring them alongside the government sector, bring them alongside the nonprofit community, bring them alongside local school districts, that's when we're all using our ... kind of operating from our best selves, right? That's when we're all doing what we know how to do. The districts have proximity to the kids and their families, they know them, and so they know that the special context of our kids and our families on the local level, so they can make sure that they're identifying the kids that are going to be most in need. While PepsiCo and McLane Global among other large food companies have the ability to get food pretty much anywhere at any time. So when you bring all those entities together alongside the federal government, you expand your capacity pretty fast.
Derek Smith:Millions of meals will be delivered. Nearly a million per week or up to a million per week and scaling that further in the weeks ahead. We heard USDA Commissioner, Sonny Purdue, mentioned that on television last week. What goes into making that happen? Whether you're talking about the food and it's sustainability, its ability just to get it there in a manner where the students can make use of it or just getting it to them. What's that look look like?
Jeremy Everett:Well, you have to have a talented team. Doug McDurham and Dustin Koontz lead our innovation team. And so essentially what they've designed is that we've worked with USDA and state agencies to be able to communicate out, hey, that this is a resource that is going to be available to you. It's a box of food. Each box will have a week's worth of food in it. So it's 10 breakfast and 10 lunches per child, that's eligible for the program. And kids are eligible if they're on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program or if they're in an area where the school is considered community eligibility provision or a CEP school. Waco ISD is a CEP school district. And so all the kids in Waco for example, would be eligible for a free meal. So one, we identified who the food could be most useful for. And recognize that in rural areas, both around Texas and around the country, they oftentimes don't have access to grocery stores. They're not in close proximity to their schools, so they can just swing by and pick up a meal. And so Doug and Dustin, essentially, work with all those state agencies who then work with all the different school districts. School districts can apply to be a part of the program. And once their applications are vetted and approved, then each individual family has to actually apply to be a part of the program. So, you're talking about anywhere from 20,000 kids to 100,000 kids. I've even heard numbers of a million to 2 million kids a week that might need a box of food to help them get by. And so Doug and the team are administering that entire program, ensuring that families live where they say they live, and that the box of food makes it to their home on a weekly basis, just like we said that it would. So you have to have a talented team that can be able to manage a lot of that. You can imagine, receiving 100,000 applications for assistance.
Derek Smith:A lot of data.
Jeremy Everett:It is. it's a lot of data. And so fortunately, we have a team in place that can manage that and turn that around in a very expedited fashion. Now, that data go somewhere. So Dr. Krey, who's been on your show, she oversees our research team. And with the Summer Demonstration Project, we've got a great team of researchers evaluating the implementation. And right now, because we're going to get so much additional data through this program, we're trying to figure out how to utilize it so that we can have some lessons learned after the COVID-19 response, after it's over as well.
Derek Smith:Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I know the meals that you send to them are nutritious some. And I think, when we think about the logistics of getting nutritious meals to students like that, it's a little bit mind boggling. If we were to open up a box, what might we see? What might we see the students receiving?
Jeremy Everett:Yeah. So all of the meals are compliant with USDA regulations for the Summer Food Service Program. Now, the meals have to be shelf stable, because you're mailing packages of food all over the country and so the meals are shelf stable. But there will be anything from milk and a breakfast cereal. There'll be an assortment of fruit cups and different things. Protein is something that is essential for our kids to continue growing and thriving. And so it's just a healthy box of food that the kids are able to get and dive into. And we heard last summer from several of the parents that participate in our Summer Demonstration Program, how much the kids loved the food, and how they were so excited to receive their box at the beginning of every week. We also heard from some of the USPS drivers and the UPS drivers and they were wondering what in the world were they delivering on a weekly basis. Why every Monday were their trucks just inundated with these giant heavy boxes worth of food? And when they learned what they were participating in, they were pretty excited to. I think they were excited to be able to be the conduit of something good for the kids in a lot of these communities that get left out on a regular.
Derek Smith:Mm-hmm (affirmative). We are visiting with Jeremy Everett, executive director of The Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. And Jeremy, I would imagine a lot of listeners to this program have been able to hear you in different formats. But for those who don't, let's back out for just a moment. As we talk about getting these meals to children, when we talk about the fight against food insecurity, how important are schools and the meals they provide in that fight? And kind of paint that picture of why it's all the more important when schools are closed to ensure that, that still gets to them.
Jeremy Everett:Yeah. For our children in the U.S., Our schools play a critical role to ensuring that we end child hunger. As you can imagine, it's hard for a kid to learn if they're not having consistent access to food. And so we've got this great robust school lunch program that's been around for, gosh, almost 75 years. It was actually implemented just prior to World War II because we realized that our kids were too malnourished to be able to be drafted. And so that was implemented during a situation of national security, very similar to this emergency Meals-to-You Program that we're running now. Then that expanded to school breakfast, and now even have an afterschool meal. Those programs are critical because when kids have consistent access to food, one, we see an increase in performance, academically in math and in science. We see an increase of nutritional food intake, which is very critical for our low-income population because oftentimes when they don't get consistent access to food, we see a lot of diet related disease in our children, which is something we certainly want to avoid. So these interventions are critical for schools to be successful, particularly schools that are serving a high-poverty population. In Texas right now, over 60% of our kids that are in public schools are on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. So this is something that we have to keep our focus on. Certainly we don't want any kid to go hungry. We don't want them to ... the cause of shame and guilt and so forth that's associated with hunger. We don't want kids to experience that. But more so, we want them to thrive. We want them to know that we love them and care for them as if they're our own children. And that's one way we can do it. So when schools are out, whether that's just the normal summer months or that's in a situation like today, it certainly makes paramount our job to figure out creative ways to get food to kids the best way we possibly can. In the summers, we've tried a couple of different things. We have a summer meal program where we have congregate meal sites. Kids can go to public parks, they can go to schools, they can go to the YMCA. They can go to these different places and be able to participate in a summer meal program, which is great. We tested out another program called Summer EBT, which essentially, families get a little bit of extra money on a Snap EBT card or on a WIC EBT card to be able to buy food for their kids in grocery stores. That program worked incredibly well, in Texas and around the country, but that really only fits kids whose families live in close proximity to a grocery store. And then of course, we tested out this Meals-to-Your program this past summer, which we think could be a good option for kids in rural America. But having said all that, I mean this is one of those situations where you're not going to have a silver bullet that's going to fix all problems. It's definitely going to take a silver buckshot approach, as some people have talked about. It's going to take a lot of different solutions to be able to contextualize a response, because we want our kids to grow up knowing that they're valued members of our society and our country. And I think that's what makes us different. That's what makes us a special nation, is when we're all in, for our kids, for our families, for the elderly. We want to make sure that they know that we love them and this is one way that we can do that.
Derek Smith:One resource that has been created, quickly to that end, is the website that we mentioned, the Covid19TXFoodResources.com. What are some of the various ways that people can use that website?
Jeremy Everett:Yeah, so that website has every curbside meal site in Texas right now. And so as school districts have closed their doors and as they've gone to these curbside meals, we work directly with the districts and with the Texas Department of Agriculture who administers all our childhood nutrition programs to make sure that we get all of those sites on that website so that anybody, anywhere in Texas that needs access to a meal can know where to go. Although, that website and our Meals-to-You website can all be found on our Baylor website, which is if you just go to HungerAndPoverty.org. Again, HungerAndPoverty.org. You can find all of these materials and connections to all of these different websites and links to be able to make sure that you either have access to food for your family or can help point other people in your community towards resources that they need.
Derek Smith:And you mentioned the website there, and for people who might not know, or maybe just seeing the headline, we mentioned that last fall, the 10th anniversary of Texas Hunger Initiative came under the umbrella of The Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty. And we only got a couple minutes, but briefly, what should people know about that? And what that means? And how that impacts the work you do?
Jeremy Everett:Hunger is just an aspect of poverty, for all practical purposes. And so the new Collaborative umbrella allows us to really dive deep into research and innovation and to develop scalable solutions to addressing hunger and poverty, whether that's around the United States or around the world. And it really brings together all of the different, various parts of what we do. And we've worked with over 25 states to date. And so, oftentimes, we got a lot of questions, if we were going into a new state as the Texas Hunger Initiative, they would be like, "Why is the Texas Hunger Initiative in North Carolina?" Well, now, people don't ask that question anymore. They're just excited that Baylor's there to come alongside the work that they're already doing in the community to enhance it, to ensure that we have more food for families.
Derek Smith:Mm-hmm (affirmative). And as people are listening, and they hear you describing the work that's taking place, the great work you're doing, are there ways that individuals if they'd like to get involved or walk alongside that work and help in some way can do so?
Jeremy Everett:Yeah, there are two ways. Obviously, you can volunteer. Here, in the local community, we need volunteers at our Meals on Wheels Program. As you can imagine, fewer people are able to volunteer right now. Also, you can volunteer at our curbside meal sites with Waco ISD and with other school districts in the area. That is considered essential service, so even though we're all going to be essentially home-bound for the next foreseeable future, volunteers who are working to ensure that food is getting to families are considered essential. And then the other way is to donate. The way that we can expand our capacity to be able to serve people, whether in Texas or around the country, is through individual support. And so, again, they can go to HungerAndPoverty.org. Knowing that a lot of folks are not experiencing a financial boom right now and that things are pretty tight, but for those that do have the capability to help resource projects like this to be able to serve more food to families, then they can go to HungerAndPoverty.org and click donate or learn how to volunteer.
Derek Smith:Well, Jeremy, we know during this busy, and you painted that picture of just how busy it is. Certainly an uncertain time for so many people. We really appreciate you taking the time to come on the show and hope that whether it's through volunteering, through financial support, or even through prayers during this time, for people that they will let take the time to kind of walk alongside the work you're doing.
Jeremy Everett:That's right.
Derek Smith:Thank you.
Jeremy Everett:Thank you.
Derek Smith:Thank you so much. Jeremy Everett, founder and executive director of The Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, our guest today on Baylor connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this program and others online, Baylor.EDU/Connections.