City employees began passing out sack lunches to hungry children around Denton last week, the city’s 20th year participating in federal summer nutrition programs.
From now through Aug. 16, employees from Denton’s Park and Recreation Department will back up four vans outside the Denton High School cafeteria every weekday, load up sack lunches and head out to 20 locations around the city where any child between the ages of 1 and 18 can receive a free meal.
Although Texas improved its reach last year, ranking 34th instead of 41st in feeding children over the summer, the state also missed out on more federal funding for summer nutrition programs than any other state, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group. Texas left $47.8 million in federal funding on the table in 2012, which meant 685,383 children may have gone hungry more than once over the summer.
In an e-mail, Lindsey Pope, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Agriculture, acknowledged that the state has room to grow but underscored that the state saw a 17 percent increase in children participating in the program between 2011 and 2012.
States are reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each lunch distributed, about $3 per child per meal. Denton, in turn, is reimbursed by the state not only for the cost of the lunches but also for the vans the city rents for the summer to provide the service.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has targeted Texas and 14 other states to try and serve more children this summer after several years of decline in summer nutrition programs. Nationwide, only about 1 in 7 children who are fed in a school lunch program are fed in the summer, too.
In Denton, those numbers run a little better. Kathy Schaeffer, who directs the program for the city, said that last week they were able to distribute between 1,800 and 2,000 lunches Monday through Thursday. On Fridays through the summer, they aren’t able to reach as many children because many are fed through other summer programs.
City employees are trying to catch as many of the Denton school district’s 11,116 students who are fed in the school’s lunch program during the year. That’s about 43 percent of the school’s population. If more than 50 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, the district itself would be required by the state to provide lunches.
Statewide, about 18.7 percent of Texans, or about 4.7 million people, including 2 million children, are “food insecure.” A report from Feeding America, another nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group, calculated the cost of food against other county-level data, such as poverty levels, unemployment rates and income, to determine how likely people are to miss a meal.
While fewer residents in Denton County are considered “food insecure” than the statewide average, the average meal in Denton County costs more. In all, the group estimates nearly 100,000 people in Denton County face food insecurity, with a meal costing an average of $2.69 compared to $2.28 statewide.
Schaeffer said city employees are always on the lookout for more ways to serve more children. Sometimes they are dissuaded only by the amount of paperwork it would take to reach a new area.
The state prefers sites to be open to the public, but some apartment complex managers are reluctant to open up their property like that. They prefer to limit service to the children living in their buildings, Schaeffer said.
With that limitation, the city staff has to work the site more like a school cafeteria, qualifying children for the program and tracking the service to them, Schaeffer said.
“We’re willing to do it, but state officials have the final say on sites where we distribute lunches,” Schaeffer said.
The city contracts with the high school cafeteria for the lunch preparation because the employees know how to prepare meals that meet federal nutrition requirements in order to qualify for the reimbursement. The lunches typically include a sandwich to meet protein and grain requirements, a fruit cup, vegetables and milk.
Staff writer Britney Tabor contributed to this report.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.