WACO—A researcher with the Texas Hunger Initiative at Baylor University earned a $5 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture for a project to expand access to food for students living in rural Texas communities.
Kathy Krey, assistant research professor and director of research and administration for the Texas Hunger Initiative, has been awarded the three-year grant from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to test a novel approach to distribute food during the summer to rural students.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 3 million children in Texas receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year. During the summer when schools are not in session, food is available to eligible families through federal and state programs, but some students—particularly those who live in rural areas—may have difficulty accessing the food programs, leaving them without consistent access to nutrition.
One approach does not fit all
“The current solution to this problem, the federal Summer Food Service Program, doesn’t fit every scenario, because it requires that students congregate at a summer feeding site, often at a school or other central location,” Krey said.
“Especially in rural areas, which Texas has a lot of, those meal sites can be less effective because there are transportation, cost or awareness barriers for students who are more broadly dispersed from schools and other potential meal sites.”
Krey and her colleagues at the Texas Hunger Initiative will test a program where families in selected areas of the state who don’t have access to a summer meal site can receive food deliveries through the mail.
Grant funding will be used to purchase shelf-stable, nutritionally complete meals, including fruits and vegetables, which are packaged and delivered directly to families.
The goal in designing this program is not to eliminate site-based summer feeding programs, but to supplement them with other mechanisms that can be more effective for Texas students whose food needs may not be met by the current system, Krey said.
“We envision a future in which summer feeding sites still exist,” she said. “In communities where populations are centrally located, the site-based model can make a lot of sense. But we know that it’s going to take a lot of innovative solutions to meet the diversity of the problem especially in a state like Texas that has so many different geographies and different realities in terms of population density.”
Access to healthy food improves academic performance
The dual problems of hunger and poverty are closely related, since students who don’t have access to healthy meals are at greater risk of low academic achievement and disciplinary problems, she noted. A failure to address nutritional deficiencies can contribute to a cycle of poverty that continues from generation to generation, Krey said.
“Research has proven that students need consistent access to healthy food to perform optimally in school,” she said. “If we think about generational poverty, education is such a key factor in students’ being able to break that cycle, and one way they can be equipped to do that learning is by having regular access to nutritious food.
“In the summer, there aren’t as many resources and opportunities to get food, which is why it’s so important that we figure out innovative ways to use public and private resources to make sure that low-income kids have access to food during the summer,” she said.
The grant also will provide research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. Andrea Skipor, graduate student in Baylor’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, said her work with the project provides important experiences in application of the concepts taught in class.
“In social work, evidence-based practice is a huge part of what we do,” Skipor said. “We learn so much in a classroom, but we don’t always get the opportunity to use it. This project has really given me a way to use my social work and community research skills in a way that has sparked an interest in research for my future practice.”
Krey credits students like Skipor with providing invaluable assistance in carrying out important research.
“We’ve been really honored with the student researchers and student workers who have come alongside us and acquired great experience in designing a pilot research project. We’ve been so impressed with the Baylor University students’ talent and commitment, and we’re really honored to have them as part of this project,” Krey said.
‘Our laboratory is the state of Texas’
The Texas Hunger Initiative is a multi-disciplinary project dedicated to ending hunger through research and innovation and committed to strengthening public policy to address domestic food insecurity.
Jeremy Everett, founder and executive director of THI, said the organization was founded on a realization that complex societal problems like hunger and poverty need solutions that leverage the resources of the public and private sectors, faith-based organizations and university researchers.
The initiative’s broad-based approach includes a widely dispersed staff who can observe problems first-hand to come up with evidence-based solutions.
“We have field staff throughout the state working in a learning-lab capacity. The average researcher might have their own laboratory. Our laboratory is the state of Texas,” Everett said.
The strategy is fundamental to Baylor’s mission to impact the lives of people in need in positive ways, Everett said.
“We want to leave society better than we found it,” Everett said. “Our faculty and students want to be engaged in research and evaluation, but they also want to see how that makes a difference in a young child getting access to food who previously wouldn’t have had it without that engagement.”