Local Non-Profit Combats Food Insecurity In Elementary Schools

SAN MARCOS – For a local non-profit organization, combating food insecurity in San Marcos elementary schools is a priority above all.

The School Fuel organization prepares lunch bags for 557 elementary school children who suffer from food insecurity. Photo by Nathalie Cohetero.

According to Feeding America, 13.1 million children under 18 in the United States live in households where they do not consistently have access to nutritious food necessary for a healthy life.

School Fuel, a San Marcos organization, urges people in the area to actively join the fight against this issue either through volunteerism or donations. Its mission is to provide “fuel” toward a better learning environment by removing the pangs of hunger some students may experience.

Volunteers sort nonperishable food before packing individual paper bags consisting of two meals and four snacks. Each bag is meant to last a child through the weekend since school may be the only place where they are guaranteed a meal.

“We are currently working with four elementary schools,” said Shelby Hebert, a School Fuel volunteer coordinator. “We’re looking to add one more this time next year, and eventually the long-term goal is to be in all the San Marcos ISD schools.”

As of 2017, School Fuel packs for 557 elementary students who receive free or reduced lunch within Bowie, De Zavala, Hernandez and Travis elementary.

Diana Breedlove packs food in the School Fuel assembly line. Photo by Nathalie Cohetero.

“Students who are in the free or reduced lunch program are usually the same ones living in food insecure households,” said Diana Breedlove, the organization’s treasurer. “If we intervene early on and make a difference in their lives, we can potentially break the cycle of poverty.”

The Census Bureau reports 37 percent of the San Marcos population lives in poverty, compared with 15.9 percent statewide.

Food insecurity has been associated with health problems for children that may hinder their ability to function normally and participate fully in school, per Feeding America’s research. When in school, children who are food insecure may experience increases in an array of behavior problems including aggression, anxiety, hyperactivity and bullying.

In 2013, School Fuel began as a pilot program providing food for 31 students whose families lived below the federal poverty line. The teachers and school administrators were instrumental in choosing participants and collecting progress evaluations. Their results showed an overall performance increase among the selected students.

“You can really see a difference in the way the students behave,” said Breedlove. “They become more involved and active when they are full and ready to learn. We want to make sure they have that over the weekend when they’re not at school. Also, it’s always great to just see a smile on a child’s face.”

With an estimated 2,861 children in the district needing the service, School Fuel offers various opportunities for the community to provide help. Donating financially and volunteering time to pack food are yearlong options.

On average, it takes the organization $215 to support a student in need for the whole school year. All donated funds go directly toward supporting the program. With no overheads or paid employees, School Fuel is solely operated by and accomplished with volunteers.

“We invite anyone to help us fight this epidemic in any way they can,” said Jenny Mangrum, director of School Fuel. “When we see the same people come volunteer every week, we all eventually become a family. Hopefully we’ll be adding on 60 kids to the program, and the new budget for the school year has been set to $140,000.”

Volunteers keep the operation costs low which maximizes the number of children who can be fed. Dillon Fox and Lindsay Anselmo are contributors to the 2,242 volunteer hours School Fuel has logged from July 2016 to March 2017.

“I come and help every chance I get,” said Fox, an anthropology sophomore at Texas State University. “It’s nice knowing that I helped in some way, even if it may be on a small scale. We all work together to unbox the food then pack the bags, and it feels like we’re accomplishing something way bigger than us.”

As of March 2017, School Fuel has packed 16,710 sacks for the participating children in need this school year.

“This is what I do every Thursday evening,” said Anselmo, a nutrition and foods senior at Texas State. “I’ve been working with the organization for the past year now. Along with unboxing and packing, I consult the team on what foods would be best for the children.”

The contents of the meal bags are based on four criteria – nutrition, weight, ease of access to the food by a child and cost.

Snacks are usually items such as fruit cups, granola bars, cracker packs and juice boxes. These items do not expire quickly and children can easily eat the items themselves.

Every Thursday evening during the school year, School Fuel volunteers meet at 211 Lee St. to ensure their elementary student participants receive these snacks.

“It’s a great thing we’re all doing here, I think,” said Mangrum. “For most of these kids we’re helping, they wouldn’t have anything to eat during the weekend otherwise. Of course, we wish we could do a lot more to help, but this is the best we can do for now, and at least it’s something that makes a difference.”