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Gap remains wide in feeding hungry Gregg County youth

By Mike Elswick and Ben Newland melswick@news-journal.com bnewland@news-journal.com
June 11, 2012 at 11 p.m.

Nearly one in five Gregg County youth are in danger of missing a meal each day. And that startling number from the not-for-profit organization Feeding America may be too low, according to a Longview youth worker.

"That's not shocking at all," said B'Ann Boiles, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Gregg County. "In fact, it seems low to me."

The Boys & Girls Club is one of four Longview locations where free meals are provided over the summer months to children 18 and younger.

Feeding America said 22.8 percent of Gregg County youth, or about 6,880 young mouths, have the potential to go without meals each day because the households they live in have incomes below the poverty level, so they are without the financial means to put food on the table.

Monday was the first day of Summer Feeding, a Longview-area program to help ensure area youth have at least a couple of meals a day - regardless of their family circumstances.

"This was our first day and we served 178 kids," Boiles said. "And it will grow as the summer goes on. If there's a hungry kid in the neighborhood, we want them to know they can come here or one of the other locations."

The club serves breakfast from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Those getting the meals do not have to be members of the Boys & Girls Club.

"A lot of these kids come here without breakfast," Boiles said. "And when they leave at the end of the day it concerns us because we don't know if they'll have a meal when they go home."

<strong>Widespread need</strong>

The study released this past week by Feeding America, a charity focused on relieving hunger, found that 27.1 percent of Texas children faced food insecurity in 2010.

Besides Gregg County's 22.8 percent rate, other East Texas counties were also in the 20 percent and above range for hunger insecurity. They include: Harrison County, 23.5 percent; Marion County, 28 percent; Upshur County, 23.8 percent; and Rusk County, 21.9 percent.

Another report released late last week by the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center found that Texas continues to struggle to feed needy children in the summertime, despite the availability of federal resources for summer meal sites.

In July 2011, the report found, only nine Texas children received summer meals out of every 100 who received subsidized lunch during the previous school year.

"We need to take better advantage of these federal resources if we want to ensure every Texas child stays healthy and nourished when school is out," said Celia Cole, CEO of the Texas Food Bank Network. "We are proud to partner with the Texas Department of Agriculture in their efforts to increase the number of children receiving summer meals. Now we need the whole community to help us get the word out."

The report was released as the Texas Legislature is conducting an interim study on food insecurity, Cole said.

"As we continue to improve access for hungry children, we need community leaders to partner with summer meal providers to inform families about the sites that already exist," Cole said.

<strong>Window of opportunity</strong>

According to the study, if Texas could reach 40 children of every 100 enrolled in school lunch programs, the state would receive an additional $46 million in annual federal aid, more than any other state.

The Feeding America study utilized the most recent census data to identify the percentage of individuals and children within each county that faced food insecurity - the lack of available food or access to food.

The data has been used by activist organizations such as the Environmental Working Group to raise public concern against a version of the 2013 Farm Bill proposed by the House Committee on Agriculture that would slash an estimated $33 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over a 10-year period.

"In Gregg County there are 18,536 SNAP recipients, representing 8,134 individual families," said Texas Health and Human Services Commission communications director Stephanie Goodman. "On average, each family receives $265 a month for food. The more stringent of the two proposals for the Farm Bill would cut $40 to $45 of SNAP funds per month per family."

Effectively, this would result in a loss of up to 17 percent of funds received by SNAP participants.

"In this administration's stimulus package, there was a slight increase in the amount allotted to recipients of SNAP funds," Goodman said. "This was done to account for projected inflation of the price of goods. I believe that some of these cuts have to do with rolling back that added benefit amount."

Recent figures from the East Texas Food Bank's service area show half of food insecure individuals' food budget comes out of pocket. Another 20 percent comes from SNAP and 10 percent from programs like the food bank. SNAP is the program formerly known as food stamps.

<strong>Shifting the problem</strong>

"This still leaves a 20 percent gap in food security that needs to be filled," said East Texas Food Bank executive director Dennis Cullinane. "If the proposed $33 billion cuts are pushed through, the need is still there and even greater. In that case, the pressure would be shifted to food pantries."

That is creating a situation where people the food banks serve will have to eat less, or the organization will have to work harder to rectify that disparity.

Cullinane said reductions in the SNAP program would also impact grocery store sales, because recipients would no longer be able to spend federal dollars on food at local markets.

"It creates a negative economic impact, when that multiplier effect is lost," he said.

Hallsville Outreach Center estimated that more than 100 families, representing 500 individuals, relied upon food from their program to supplement their needs each month.

From 80 percent to 85 percent of the center's patrons are repeats, said Outreach Center President David Holman. "That 15 to 20 percent that leave our program are usually accounted for by families that go through a short-lived crisis, or we'll simply have patrons that find decent jobs and get back on their feet," he said. "That's what we like to see."

Holman said his agency could not sustain a possible 15 percent increase in need for food assistance at this time.

"I imagine the greatest problems will hit food banks that service less-rural areas," he said. "The need is here, but we're not within walking or biking distance of many of our impoverished families. That's honestly one of our biggest hurdles."



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