‘Feeding kids with dignity:’ Making sure students don’t go hungry during the pandemic

Local News

AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — When schools closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, kids not only missed out on the sense of normalcy, social interactions, and structure provided by their schools, but many kids also missed out on two daily meals.

Earlier in the year, the High Plains Food Bank estimated that one-in-five kids on the Texas Panhandle was food insecure; now, they estimate that statistic to be one-in-three.

Community members, organizations, and school districts stepped in to fill that increased need, and continue to feed kids.

Tremaine Brown owns Shi Lee’s BBQ and Soul Food. He started giving lunches to hungry kids free of charge, back in March. Now, his restaurant has partnered with the High Plains Food Bank’s Kid’s Cafe and has given away nearly 90,000 meals. He says he noticed the need in his neighborhood immediately.

“During the pandemic, with so many people losing jobs, some families went from double-income families to zero income families. So they really needed that assistance,” Brown said.

Between Amarillo and Canyon school districts and the Kid’s Cafe, more than 41,000 meals are served every day. More than one million meals were served through Amarillo ISD’s drive and walk-up food distribution sites in March and April. That program usually runs in the summer but this year, because of the increased need caused by the pandemic, it started early.

“We definitely believe in feeding kids with dignity. And part of that process of asking for food is difficult enough as it is for anyone, especially for kids.”

Maribel Sotelo, High Plains Food Bank Kid’s Cafe Program Director

Chartwells Resident District Manager for Amarillo ISD Matt Buck puts that one million meals into perspective, “While a million meals is a lot, it’s really probably close to maybe a sixth of what we were used to.”

Even though it was less than what was needed, Buck says it still helped.

“Several different community members and family members talked about how much it really helped their families and how much they appreciated it. And it seemed to operate pretty smoothly. It seemed like everybody was pretty happy with it. And it had a huge, huge effect and help for our community,” Buck said.

To meet the growing need, Kid’s Cafe has added additional meal sites. Program Director Maribel Sotelo said the kitchen where they usually make and package the meals is now a site where people can also get food.

“We also turned our kitchen into a site, which is exciting because we were standing outside for the 30 minutes after school every day. And we have our regulars that come by and they pick up their meal. But we’ve added a fridge to the outdoor section of our building and that sees about 40 people a day. Forty meals are served out of that fridge daily,” Sotelo said.

Importantly, Sotelo said, their food is available to anyone who is hungry, no questions asked, “We definitely believe in feeding kids with dignity. And part of that process of asking for food is difficult enough as it is for anyone, especially for kids.”

Through grant money from the USDA and the State of Texas, Canyon and Amarillo ISD’s are currently providing free meals for all students under the age of 18.

However, Canyon ISD Superintendent Dr. Darryl Flusche believes that funding may run out as soon as December.

“Even though we knew that this opportunity is going to be for a short time period, I say short, we don’t anticipate that it will go throughout the school year unless the waiver can be extended. We said for a time period, it can make a difference. Let’s create this opportunity for all of our students,” Superintendent Flusche said.

That is a problem for the families who rely on it but Superintendent Flusche says, for now, it’s helping.

“We had a student who picked up their lunch, and this is what they told our cafeteria service person, they said, ‘My mom wanted me to tell you, thanks for allowing us to have free meals in my family because we’ll be able to pay our electric bill this month.’ It’s pretty real. That’s where a lot of our families are. And the fact that we chose to offer this benefit even though it’s for a limited time, it makes a difference today.”

An additional challenge the schools and agencies are facing is staffing. Buck says that on a given day, they are having to juggle staff who are out because they are sick with COVID-19 or having to quarantine to the tune of around 50 people per day.

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