American Graduate: Summer Program Keeps Refugee Children Fed and Ready to Learn

Food banks serve about 3.5 million Texans each year. One of the most effective ways to make sure children are fed is through school breakfast and lunch programs, which are free or reduced-price for about two-thirds of Texas school children. But, when schools lets out for the summer, those children need to be fed in other ways.

“At our food banks we always see an increase in requests for emergency food from families with children during the summer months,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, an association which represents the state’s 21 food banks. “It’s hard to quantify; some kids are eating at home, some kids may be in camp, but we know from the sheer numbers that are relying on that important school meal during the day, that when summer hits a lot of those kids may go hungry.”

One organization running a summer lunch program is iACT, or Interfaith Action of Central Texas. iACT works with refugees to teach them English and train them how to assimilate to life in the U.S. They also run a summer program for refugee children, which provides food and English lessons taught by volunteer teachers.

When refugees arrive in Austin they receive 3 months rent, utilities, food stamps, and Medicaid for about 8 months.

“These are people with very few resources,” Program Director Lubna Zeidan says. “They are the working poor. The children, there’s not a lot of food at home. There’s some food because they know how to make ends meet. They know how to be frugal, but again, the children’s nutrition is probably suffering in some families.”

Many of the families iACT works with are Muslim, so they work with the food bank to provide halal meats and meals without pork products. Zeidan says one of the biggest challenges is overcoming differences in the way the families are used to eating.

“It’s important that they have american food,” she says. “One of the things is the kids won’t drink the milk. Because milk is a very American drink. So we find that nobody drinks the milk. Except for the chocolate milk because you have the angle of it being chocolate.”

She says many of the parents find American supermarkets foreign and overwhelming. Her clients find vegetables and fruits they’ve never eaten and with very limited money they often resort of eating only rice and beans, which can lead to malnutrition.

Malnutrition can severely impact a young person’s development and ability to learn in the classroom.

“It can mean more absences, more difficulty concentrating, lower test scores, health, all sorts of problems that can affect a kid’s growing and health and development, particularly in those younger years,” Cole of Feeding Texas says. “So we don’t want to see kids missing a meal because their parents can’t afford to feed them under any circumstances. It’s having consequences that aren’t only hurting that kid, or that family, or that community, or that school, but have serious cost to the whole state of Texas.”

Feeding Texas keeps track of how many children are accessing free or reduced-price lunch versus the amount who are being fed by summer programs and have found only 1 in 10 kids are being reached when school is out. So they are working on pilot programs to bring food to where children are, rather than relying on busy parents to drop their child off at a food bank, camp, or nonprofit location.

“You’ll often hear, ‘hunger is a health problem’ and ‘hunger is a pocketbook issue,'” Cole says. “And it’s true, the costs associated with food insecurity are just enormous for the state. So we have every reason to invest in strategies and programs during the summer months that make sure that kids go back to school ready to learn and healthy in the fall.”

This story airs on KLRU on Sunday, July 12, 2015 at 6:30pm during PBS NewsHour Weekend. It’s part of KLRU’s American Graduate initiative which is aimed at increasing awareness about the dropout crisis in Central Texas. 

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