Lunchtime at Cummings Elementary is a busy and noisy affair. But one thing students here can be sure of is always having breakfast and lunch available. The child advocacy group Children at Risk surveyed school districts in the Greater Houston area to determine how many students have access to free breakfast and lunch. Children at Risk President Dr. Bob Sanborne says the Houston Independent School District and North Forest Independent School District are the only ones offering free meals to every student, regardless of income.
"Here in Houston, we are not using all the federal money that we could be using for schools. So we're calling on more school districts to follow the example of HISD, to follow the example of North Forest. It's a real shame when we here in Houston are not using all the federal money that's allocated to us for kids that are going hungry."
Although Houston and North Forest are the only ones to offer free meals district-wide, Sheldon ISD offers universal breakfast to all elementary school students. And Channelview, Deer Park, Pasadena and Klein ISDs offer universal breakfast on select campuses that have a high percentage of low-income students. Still the survey shows 61 percent of students in Harris County are not participating in free or reduced school breakfast programs and 27 percent don't participate in school lunch. Sanborne says that's why more districts should consider offering universal breakfast and lunch.
"High school kids would just rather go hungry than tell their friends that they are signed up for free school breakfast and you find that among a lot of kids certainly at the high school level. At lower levels you find it's because parents are not doing the paperwork. So whenever you do universal, first of all this is federal money that we deserve here in Houston and we need to be getting this federal money. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made it easy to do that so we need to avail ourselves of that."
On an average day in Harris County, an estimated 20,000 people go hungry. Brian Greene is president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank. He says universal school breakfast and lunch programs are an important source of food for poor families.
"Schools are probably the greatest source of the fight against hunger for children -- the schools that are providing the free lunch and breakfast programs. When people ask us at the Houston Food Bank 'what's your greatest need or time of the year?' they generally assume the holidays. It's actually summer. It is when these children are not in school, they're not able to get the lunch and the breakfast. This is a very important program, we are very pleased that HISD is pursuing making this universal and we encourage other school districts to do the same."
Children at Risk and the Houston Food Bank are recommending districts adopt universal breakfast and lunch programs because for some students, eating at school may be the only meal they have during the day. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.