UTSA and the San Antonio Express-News held the second event in their series of town hall discussions last Thursday, Mar. 27. The topic of the discussion was “Can San Antonio’s hunger problem be solved?”

The panel consisted of San Antonio Food Bank CEO Eric Cooper, United Way San Antonio Education Issue Council manager Katie Pace, Assistant Director of the City of San Antonio’s Department of Human Services Richard Keith and Associate Professor of UTSA’s Department of Demography and Organization Studies Dr. Johnelle Sparks. The moderator for the panel was San Antonio Express-News social services reporter Melissa Stoeltje.

The moderator, Ms. Stoeltje, gave a brief introduction of the topic before allowing each panelist to introduce his or herself. “In Bexar County, over 260,000 people a year struggle to feed themselves,” she stated in her opening speech.

Eric Cooper introduced himself first, explaining that the San Antonio Food Bank serves a region of 16 counties and works with over 500 non-profits within those counties to provide food to 58,000 people. “A third of them are kids, and about a third are seniors,” he explained.

Less than 20 percent of those over 18 who are receiving food assistance are unemployed. Cooper stated “Many would say that (the food bank is) feeding the working poor.”

Keith explained that the city’s Department of Human Services manages numerous food assistance programs and reduces hunger by helping families rise out of poverty.

Pace clarified that the role of the United Way is to act as a fundraiser for many non-profits throughout San Antonio. The branch funds parent led organizations that are currently focused on ensuring student nutrition.

Sparks explained that over the past four years her department has done extensive research on communities that are food-insecure.

“Food is a much larger component of low-income household budgets than it is in high-income household budgets… The poverty in an area is directly correlated with food insecurity,” stated Sparks. She further explained that 25 percent of children in Texas are considered food insecure.

The first question asked by the moderator was “What are the underlying causes of food insecurity?”

Cooper responded first, stating that there is a direct correlation with food insecurity and poverty.

“If you want to address hunger, you have to address poverty,” he explained. Sparks emphasized that for low-income families, access to good food is lacking due to their busy work schedules — struggling families often find it easier to buy cheap, unhealthy food.

“These people are smart, but they don’t have the time to directly address their food needs,” remarked Sparks.

The second question, again asked by Ms. Stoeltje, was “What is the cost of hunger?”

Cooper again took the initiative, stating that food insecurity has the largest effect on children who go to school malnourished and are unable to learn because they feel tired and sick. “(The San Antonio Food Bank) invested in the effort of making sure they had nutritious meals when they arrive at school, and again at mid-day, so they’re ready to learn.”

Keith argued that by not providing nutritious food to kids now, there will be higher healthcare costs in the future.

Pace recalled a story a parent told her during the early years of her service with United Way.

A school nurse told a parent that the students at a local school were not sick, they were malnourished because they didn’t have access to breakfast and lunch for two weeks.

This experience led to a partnership with the San Antonio Food Bank that, according to Pace, provided a “20 pound bag for every single child in all 28 of the campuses,” the program covers in 2013. However, she admitted that even that accomplishment was not enough. Pace remarked that “the city has a lot of resources, but we don’t utilize them very well.”

The third question, taken from the audience asked, “How do we extend the reach of food assistance programs for children beyond the schoolyard?”

Pace responded by pointing out that there are organizations in San Antonio who have already extended the reach of food assistance such as the YMCA.

Cooper highlighted the food bank’s KidsCafe program, which provides dinners to San Antonio parents who struggle to feed their children.

Further, he stressed the importance of such programs to break the cycle of poverty and called upon the community to support programs that offer similar services.

The next question from the audience was on whether there should be limitations placed on the quantity of “bad” foods that can be bought with programs such as Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

Sparks responded that this was a “bad approach with good intentions” and that it stigmatizes people who are on food assistance.

Cooper commented that San Antonio needs to remove the negative stigma surrounding these programs to increase the enrollment of those who qualify. He believed this would only decrease the enrollment in these programs.

The next audience question asked about enrollment barriers for those who qualify for food assistance.

Cooper stated, “The number one barrier is education… It is very difficult to correctly sign up for these programs. There is no margin for error. The number two barrier is stigma… people don’t feel they have earned the assistance they receive from programs such as SNAP.”

Additionally, he observed that hope for improvement causes many families to hesitate beyond the program application deadline. Cooper added that 71 percent of the qualifying families in Bexar County are registered for SNAP. The national rate is around 60 percent.

After a brief discussion by the other panelists, Sparks made the observation that the waiting period to receive benefits after registration is noticeably long, generally 5 to 6 weeks. This often results in families signing up for food welfare when they are most in need.

The final question asked about improving food quality in public schools.

Pace answered this last inquiry by highlighting the passage of SB 376 during the last session of the Texas Senate.

SB 376 provides free breakfast to all students for schools with 70 percent or more students who qualify for reduced lunch.

To learn more about the San Antonio Food Bank and how to donate, visit safoodbank.org

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