SAN ANTONIO – Educators, administrators, parents and students are calling it a win-win; hungry students are now getting extra food at school, and less food is going in the trash because of the Texas Student Fairness in Feeding Act, which was signed into law in late 2017.
State Rep. Diego Bernal wrote the bill and worked with colleagues to push it through the Texas House and Senate. Now, local schools are finally taking advantage.
For some students, the school meals they eat are the only ones they get each day.
"It affects their learning. If they're hungry, how can they concentrate?" said Charisse Cline, with Cody Elementary School. "I’m a teacher, and you have concerns and you care about that and you want to make sure their needs are met."
Extra food on the students' trays, or in their backpacks, would make a big difference, but before last year, overlapping local, state and federal laws made it confusing for districts that didn't want to get in trouble for giving the extra food to students.
"It was hard because kids would ask, 'Do you mind if I can have this for my friends?' And many times we'd have to tell them no," said Kittiya Johnson, principal at Cody Elementary.
Administrators with the Northside Independent School District said there was a lot of perfectly good food thrown away each day.
"We did see quite a bit of waste. The kids would comment on it. 'Well, are we just gonna throw it away?' And also the teachers would make those comments," Johnson said.
Jenny Arredondo, San Antonio ISD's child nutrition senior executive director, said her district works hard to keep waste to a minimum, and the new law helps even further. In 2017, she even traveled to Austin to provide testimony in favor of the bill while it was being considered.
"Food insecurity is a major issue. It’s a challenge all districts face. It is a huge problem within our district, so a bill like this that has passed, our students are really the ones that are going to benefit from it," Arredondo said.
The new law allows each Texas school to become its own nonprofit through organizations such as the food bank or PTA programs, which means they can distribute unused, non-perishable food the way they want. Each district has the flexibility to create its own program.
Northside ISD has a "Share Cart," which allows students to put in milk, juice or packaged foods they didn't use. Any students who want extra can grab them, but they have to eat it during school mealtimes.
"As soon as those items are in the cart, they're taken almost immediately," Johnson said.
San Antonio ISD has a similar, more expanded concept.
"The sharing table, we use that only during our mealtimes, whereas the actual food pantry, the function of the food pantry would be for times when meals are not taking place," Arredondo said, clarifying that items such as milk or juice are not put in the pantry because they cannot be refrigerated.
SAISD has a designated liaison on each campus with this program, who oversees the food exchange and forms a relationship with cafeteria staff.
The pilot programs at both of thee districts have already been labeled a success.
"Definitely (a) huge difference. The kids are definitely happier," Cline said.
These educators and students hope to see more Texas districts create programs such as the ones at SAISD and NISD.
There are other districts in the San Antonio area taking advantage of these programs, and they all started within the last few months.