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Texas State Rep. Diego Bernal had a simple question for school leaders in San Antonio.
What’s your biggest concern for students?
Wasted food, they told him.
In fact, Bernal toured schools in San Antonio (63.2% Latino) and learned leaders were frustrated with how much food is trashed and not given to students who live in poverty and have no food at home. Even in more affluent school districts, students were going hungry while schools threw away, “untouched, unopened, ripe, perfectly edible food,” Bernal told the San Antonio Express-News.
Bernal was heartbroken. He wanted to do something.
But how could he bring leftover school food to the mouths of hungry students?
Children Going Hungry
Bernal saw two types of hungry students in San Antonio.
- Students who are food insecure and don’t know where their next meal may come from.
- Students who are not food insecure, but are still developing and growing, and may be hungry.
Diego reached out to USDA officials. He worked to understand how previous laws worked.
“Since 2011, federal law has allowed school districts to donate leftover food to nonprofits free of liability as long as they follow health and safety codes. Of the limited number of school districts taking advantage of the law, many end up donating to food banks or homeless shelters,” according to the El Paso Times.
But Bernal wanted to find a gap that allows hungry students to eat leftover food on school campuses.
He got a big idea: School food pantries.
How School Food Pantries Work
He championed legislation (House Bill 367), with the help of State Sen. Boris Miles, Sen. Sylvia Garcia, and Sen. José Menénedez, to allow schools to set up food pantries. The idea was for schools to be able to accept and store donated food and surplus food from the cafeteria.
House Bill 367 became Senate Bill 725, The Student Fairness in Feeding Act. It was signed into law in June 2017 and took effect Sept. 1, 2017.
Essentially, a school can donate leftover food to themselves.
A school can name a campus designee, such as a teacher, counselor or PTA member, as the designee of a third-party nonprofit, allowing the school to donate, receive, store, and redistribute the leftover food on campus at any time. Most foods are prepackaged drinks or foods, and fruits and vegetables, allowing schools to meet local and state health codes.
Administrators have a lot of freedom when implementing a school food pantry.
“If they just want to test it out and do bottled water and unopened peel-top cereal and wrapped granola bars, cool,” Bernal told the El Paso Times. “If they want to spend money and add refrigerators, that’s also great. We don’t dictate how they should do it.”
New School Food Pantries Are Emerging
In El Paso, school officials were allowed to try the program early.
Olimpia Estrada of El Paso has seen the amount of wasted food drop dramatically as officials have established programs allowing the redistribution of leftover food, according to the Texas Tribune.
“Anything to cut down on the waste and not feed the trash can, I think would be good,” Estrada said.
In San Antonio, Jenny Arredondo the Senior Executive Director of Child Nutrition for San Antonio ISD, has implemented food pantries on 7 SAISD campuses and currently working on other campuses to create food pantries as well.
“Food insecurity does exist and hunger doesn’t just end when the bell rings. We had this wonderful opportunity and again how could we not do this for our kids. With the demographics of San Antonio ISD, implementing a food pantry was a necessity,” Arrendondo said.
Read more about Arredondo’s school food pantries.
Campus food pantries are springing up across the country.
A growing number of colleges and universities are establishing free food pantries to help students who regularly experience food insecurity make ends meet, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Bernal, meanwhile, continues to push schools to start food pantries.
He will continue visiting schools as long as he is in office, he says. Diego is a true hero to hungry children in Texas, and hopefully this encourages other lawmakers around the nation to enact policy changes that may have a positive impact on student health and wellbeing.
“Go as far as you can and when you have questions reach out to resources,” Bernal said. “Start small and build.”
Can You Start a School Food Pantry?
You can start by using the four-step Salud America! School Food Pantry Action Pack:
- Start the Conversation. Use the model emails and talking points to talk to decision-makers about the need for School Food Pantries.
- Build Support. Use the model letter campaign, handout, emails, and presentation to build support for your pantry.
- Plan and Implement a Pantry. Use Salud America!‘s “Quick Guide” and real templates from San Antonio ISD—which implemented 10 School Food Pantries—to craft your own.
- Promote Your Pantry. Use the printable signs and shareable social media graphics to alert students, parents, and the community to your big change.
Why do this?
Because research shows children who go to school hungry are more likely to make poorer grades and have mental health problems. This makes it harder to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally.
So help kids at your school with a school food pantry today!
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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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