Free Summer Meals in Dallas

In the past, when I thought about children facing hunger in the United States, I would think about how to solve it in terms of what schools can provide: free school lunches, free school breakfast, and free after school meals served to kids staying for homework help or other after school activities. I think this is a fairly common thought process; after all, school is where most children spend the majority of their day. If the schools have the resources, why not look to them to help feed kids who may not get enough food at home? And there is no disputing the fact that the work that schools do in this arena is incredibly important. The Food Research & Action Center has put forth studies that have proven that programs that offer free breakfast to all children improve student achievement and behavior. After all, who doesn’t have an easier time concentrating and just generally feel better on a full stomach?

But there’s a large portion of the year when kids aren’t in school. And while there are kids who relish the coming of the summer months, many children face that time with dread. Because for kids that rely on free meals provided at school, those months they spend away means little or no access to food. As Margaret Lopez, Director of Nutrition at Dallas ISD Food & Child Nutrition Services, says: “The family resources don’t increase just because school is out and kids are at home.”

That’s where the Summer Meals program comes in.  Also known as the Summer Food Service Program, it’s a federally-funded USDA program that here in Texas is administered by the Texas Department of Agriculture. The TDA reimburses providers who serve healthy meals to children and teens in low-income areas at no charge. This summer, the USDA estimates that more than 200 million free meals will be served to children all over the country. To qualify for a free summer meal, you only need to be under 18 years old. There’s no need to bring identification or prove a certain level of income—if you need a meal, you get that meal.

The Dallas Coalition for Hunger Solutions’ Child Hunger Action Team is made up of some great organizations that have made it their mission to make sure kids don’t spend the summer hungry. That includes organizations who are working together to make sure all families are aware of the Summer Meals program and the sites where kids can get free healthy meals. According to Jessica Galleshaw, Director of Health Impact at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and co-chair of the Child Hunger Action Team, a great summer meals site is “a site to which kids want to go. These sites offer healthy and delicious meals that are appealing to kids, but also integrates activities and games. For many kids there is a stigma attached to accepting help such as a free meal, so it is important for sites to overcome this by offering more than that. It is much easier for a kid to invite his friends to the park for lunch and game of basketball than to invite them to the park for a free meal. Great sites are engaging and use their face time with kids to keep them active and learning in the summer time.”

Dallas ISD alone is planning 225 summer meals locations with about half of those open to neighborhood children for meals. There are more than 70 other organizations in Dallas County that are sponsors, including other school districts. Service starts in early June and can end as late as mid-August, but the length of time, dates, and days of the week when sites are open vary by location. To find the nearest summer meals site to you, text FOODTX to 877-877, visit or call 211.

According to No Kid Hungry, families say that on average their grocery bills are about $300 higher every month that the kids are home from school. This is an expense that some families just can’t handle, and they shouldn’t have to. Join the Child Hunger Action Team in spreading the word about the Summer Meals program so we can make sure that all Dallas kids get the food they need. To learn more about how you or your organization can help, contact Loretta Landry at

This post was written and contributed to the blog by Charlotte Johnson, communications coordinator for the Dallas office of the Texas Hunger Initiative. 

Spring Family Garden Project Kicks Off in Dallas

I have always been interested in vegetable gardening. The idea of growing my own food holds great appeal; not only could I save money at the grocery store, but I could look at a salad and know exactly where those carrots came from. I could feel proud knowing that I had grown them myself. But I’ve never lived anywhere with enough land to plant a vegetable garden, and that is a problem facing many individuals interested in growing produce. If you live in an apartment, or a house with just a small manicured front lawn, where do you put a vegetable plot?

This month, the Faith Community Action Team launched the spring season of its Family Garden Project. The project is a collaboration with family garden project presentation 5the Family Garden Initiative, an Ohio-based nonprofit that provides garden kits to low-income families at low cost, so that they can grow their own fresh produce. The garden kits include 8 GardenSoxx, mesh tubes filled with compost and nutrients that allow families to grow their own vegetables even when they do not have the land to create an in-ground garden.  The garden kits also include seeds, a watering can, a care guide and a recipe guide.

The project was introduced to Dallas in September of 2014, and results were studied and analyzed by Wendy Ortiz, an Emerson Hunger Fellow who served in Dallas for six months. Ortiz found that the project was a mixed success. Of the 29 families that were surveyed in the Fall, 20% were never able to harvest any vegetables. Only two families were able to harvest less than a cup full of collards, spinach and tomatoes, and no families were able to harvest any cabbage or cucumbers. Radishes proved to be the easiest vegetable to grow in the Fall, as eleven families were able to pick 5-10 radishes.

roundtwo1Even though they did not grow a lot of vegetables, virtually all of the families felt that the GardenSoxx empowered them to learn new gardening techniques, as well as teach their children about food production and responsibility. Ortiz compiled a list of best practices for caring for the GardenSoxx based on her observations. She recommended that sites utilize the knowledge of local gardening experts, make sure to plant according to a recommended schedule, choose plants that are easy to grow, and build a community by providing recipients with regular support and gardening information. Armed with these tips, the Faith Community Hunger Solutions Action Team decided to continue the project this Spring, determined to address problems faced during the Fall project and to see if the Spring project could be a success.

It began on Friday, April 10. The six congregations participating arrived at Sharing Life Community Outreach in Mesquite in the early afternoon and gathered around as Ruth Klein, a master gardener, explained best practices for caring for the GardenSoxx. She explained how to plant seeds in the Soxx and provided tips for general care. For example, did you know that watering the leaves of your plants contributes to the plant developing a harmful fungus? Only water the base!

After the training, volunteers helped load the GardenSoxx,
watering cans, seed packets and information booklets onto trucks, and the participating churches took the materials back to their congregations in anticipation of the next day, when the seeds would be planted in the GardenSoxx.

The next day, I drove out to Services of Hope, an education nonprofit that strives to help fifth graders in the Dallas area achieve academic excellence. They also work closely with the local community, and for this reason were interested in sponsoring the GardenSoxx. That sunny Saturday morning I met with Chelsea Knox, the Business/Office Manager, and Jonathan Jones, the Program Manager. They were just finishing up helping their volunteers from SMU paint their offices, and were just about to head out to deliver the GardenSoxx to participating families. They kindly agreed to let me tag along, and I followed their truck as we drove just a few blocks away and delivered the GardenSoxx to three different homes.

The GardenSoxx recipients were mostly families or senior women, and everyone was excited to receive them. Chelsea and Jonathan unloaded the GardenSoxx from the truck and arranged them on front lawns or on ready-made gardens, wherever the recipients indicated. Everyone seemed surprised that the GardenSoxx could be placed virtually anywhere. When they were fully unloaded, Chelsea took the time to carefully go through the care guides with the recipients, showing them step-by-step how to plant and take Harmony FGI 4.23.15-acare of their gardens. She then reminded them that there would be periodic support meetings where garden recipients could discuss their progress and ask

The first of these meetings took place ten days later, at lunch time on Tuesday, April 21. Even though only two of the five garden recipients were able to attend, Chelsea was positive about the experience, excited to discover that all five delivered gardens are right on schedule and that excitement among the recipients was still very high.  Another support meeting took place April 23 at Concord Church in southwest Dallas, where several more garden recipients discussed their progress. One gardener expressed interest in making pickles out of the cucumbers she grows, while another is looking forward to her collards.

As the project continues, there will be more support meetings and more check-ins. There will no doubt be some great harvests as the plants begin to grow—in fact, some have even begun see their okra start to sprout!

This post was written and contributed to the blog by Charlotte Johnson, Communications Coordinator for the Dallas office of the Texas Hunger Initiative. 


Making Urban Gardens a Reality in Dallas

The Urban Agriculture Action Team of the Dallas Coalition for Hunger Solutions has been working together since May of 2014. At that first meeting, nearly one year ago, the team set a goal for itself: to change the Dallas city ordinances to allow for broader food production options.

Today that city ordinance work is garnering a lot of attention. If you haven’t already read about it in articles from the Dallas Morning News and Edible Dallas/Fort Worth, you may have seen the buzz all over social media; the Urban Ag team is taking Dallas by storm with the simple idea that people should be allowed to grow food to sell within Dallas city limits. The idea is called an Urban Garden, and it’s currently not legal to have one in Dallas. It is currently legal to have a community garden, where you grow food and eat it yourself or give it away for free, but the Urban Ag team wants to encourage community members to grow and sell food in their neighborhoods as a way to promote economic development and improve access to healthy food. The team has so far gained approval from the Zoning Ordinance Committee, City Plan Commission, and the Economic Development Committee of the City Council.

“The process has been exciting, really,” says Susie Marshall, chair of the Urban Ag team. “The fact that there has been positive interest concurrently from the City Council has made things a bit easier, as has the fact that we have been working the entire time with city staff. It has definitely been a community process.”

The Action Team’s proposed amendments would allow the sale of Urban Garden produce (off-site in residential districts and on-site in non-residential districts), as well as allow for aquaponics, aquaculture, and the raising of female chickens within city limits. Aquaculture is the cultivation, maintenance and harvesting of fish, and aquaponics is combining fish and plants together to grow food in a recirculating system without any loss of water.

On March 2, the City of Dallas Office of Environmental Quality along with the Office of Sustainable Development and Construction presented the Progress Report on the Economic Opportunities of Sustainable Food Systems to the Economic Development Committee of the City Council, which was met with approval. The committee voted to send the proposed amendments to the Dallas City Council, who will vote on the proposed changes at their meeting on Wednesday, March 25.

Anita Mills, gardening consultant and owner of Anita’s Arbor, is one of the many members of the team that has been a part of this process from the very beginning. “The Urban Agriculture Action Team is made up of people from every aspect of urban agriculture who were able to work together, settle any differences of opinion and come up with a coherent proposal for the city council to consider,” says Mills. “It’s been a tremendous experience. We have had to compromise on some items, but the main goal of providing good, healthy food to everyone in the city is our priority and I believe that the majority on the City Council supports that.”

There are over 40 stakeholders involved in this process, and they run the gamut from the Revitalize South Dallas Coalition and the WE over Me Farm at Paul Quinn College to the Garden Café and the Texas Honeybee Guild. With such a diverse set of players involved, it’s no wonder that the proposed amendments haven’t had any trouble gaining approval on their way to the final hurdle, the Dallas City Council itself.

To learn more about the proposed changes or how you can help support the team at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, contact Susie Marshall at

This post was written and contributed to the blog by Charlotte Johnson, communications coordinator for the Dallas office of the Texas Hunger Initiative. 

A Visit to Three Dallas Congregate Meals Sites

The Senior Hunger Action Team has been hard at work setting goals for the coming year and creating implementable strategies to achieve those goals. Recently, we decided our goal for congregate meals sites in Dallas County was to increase participation by 15% over the next one to two years. In an attempt to better understand the level of participation currently taking place at congregate meals sites, as well as what those sites are doing to attract seniors and what could be done differently, I spent one week visiting three different congregate meals sites.

First I visited The Brady Center, a private non-profit senior center located in Deep Ellum and run by Catholic Charities. It was a chilly brady2November morning when I visited, and the rush of warmth as I entered was just as comforting as the smell of breakfast cooking in their large, industrial kitchen. Beatrice Carter, the Senior Case Manager and a member of the Senior Hunger Action Team herself, greeted me at the door and introduced me to the elderly gentleman behind the front desk, who was helping members sign in as they arrived. It was 9 AM, and the dining room was already filled with seniors, eating and chatting and enjoying themselves. Beatrice gave me a tour of the facility, which was extremely impressive. The Brady Center has several different activities rooms; in the first, a few tables with different craft projects had been set up, including a quilt-making station. In the second, sewing machines were arranged, with a stack of Christmas stockings beside them. Beatrice explained that a group of crafting seniors (cleverly named The Brady Bunch) were in the process of sewing stockings for Parkland Hospital, where newborn infants would be wrapped in them and presented to brady3their parents this holiday season.
The same room also contained a small library and a few exercise machines, as well as a barber chair where the men could have their hair cut once per month, free of charge. Along a wall adjacent to the dining area stood a row of computers, and Beatrice explained that the Center provides regular computer classes for the members. Other classes are also offered: ESL classes, brady4Diabetes Prevention classes, and benefits counseling. I was introduced to the rest of the staff, including an Activities Coordinator who showed me the centerpiece craft she was planning on leading interested members in: an adorable top hat made from a large tin can and decorated with jolly Christmas holly. As we were chbrady quoteatting, two volunteer staff members dropped by to show us the pine cone turkeys they wanted to teach the members to make.

Beatrice gave me a tour of the kitchen and introduced me to their chef, Grace. She explained that their funding comes from Catholic Charities, the Dallas Area Agency on Aging, and private and corporate donations. With that money, they order supplies needed from Ben E. Keith, and get what food they can’t get there (such as coffee and cereal) in bulk from Sam’s Club. Then Grace makes their meals on site. “Many of these seniors have told me ‘having a full stomach makes me feel better’,” Beatrice said, “and it is hot food, prepared by hand. That is so different from eating something that’s just been re-heated.”

As I was leaving, Beatrice handed me a copy of a calendar, with a full schedule of events and activities on one side and a full daily menu on the other. She invited me to come to their Thanksgiving Dance the following Monday, where she told me how great it was to see the seniors shaking their tail feathers. When I asked her if there was anything she would improve about the facility, she thought for a moment and then said that more than anything she would like to increase participation. They have between 120 and 130 members attend each day, but they have the capacity for up to 220. With a full-service kitchen, and on-site bus driver who picks up and drops off door-to-door, I couldn’t imagine it would be too difficult to attract new members, but it is a struggle nonetheless.

jubilee1My next site visit was to the Jubilee Center. The Jubilee Center has a much different situation; they are not a senior center, but a community center, and congregate meals is only one part of what they do. I met Candace Thompson, the Director of Community Outreach, as she was setting up the main room of The Old Church at Jubilee Park, a single-room church where the Jubilee Center serves congregate meals. The seniors had just finished a screening of the Queen Latifah film Last Holiday, part of the once-per-month Senior Cinema, and were helping volunteers to bring long tables back into the center of the room for the meal service.

Candace sat down with me and discussed numbers: The Jubilee Center serves lunch on Wednesdays and Fridays, and they see roughly 25 to 30 sejubilee2niors at each of those meals. They are also a private non-profit, and their funding comes exclusively from private donations. Donations are not solicited from seniors; in fact, there isn’t even a place to donate. When seniors enter, they write their name and age in a book on a table at the front of the church, and sit down for the meal. Candace explained that they purchase supplies from Sam’s Club, which they prepare in their own small on-site kitchen.

They have a few activities for seniors during the month: chair yoga, Bingo, a quilting project that the seniors work on during an arts & crafts session. Candace even mentioned field trips that they occasionally take, to Christmas parties and the like. When asked what she might improve, if given the opportunity, Candace gave the same answer that Beatrice had: she would like higher participation.

My final visit was to the Concord Senior Center on Pastor Bailey Drive. By far the largest space that I visited, the Concord Church is several large brick buildings on a enormous plot of land, and senior meals are served at the back of the church in a recreation hall with tables set up in the middle and a stage off to one side, where microphones stand in anticipation of the next round of entertainment. This congregate meals site is run by Dallas County and serves lunch every week day, where they see about 65-80 seniors daily. Donations are accepted at sign-in, no more than 50 cents to a dollar, and members must register beforehand (but of course no one is turned away). One thing I found interesting is that the Concord Senior Center only has one staff member; the rest of the folks in aprons are all senior volunteers who not only volunteer there, but also eat there. Seniors were playing cards while eating, some were watching the news on a flat-screen television, and other entertainment options included music, exercise classes, and Bingo. Concord receives their food from the VNA, and serves it from their large industrial kitchen in the back of the center. The center provides nutrition education and social services presentations to educate their members. Best of all, they provide free transportation to anyone who needs it, picking up seniors from their homes when notified. When I asked Jeanette Manzano, the Contracts Manager of the DCHHS Older Adult Services Program, what she would improve about the site if she could, she told me that she would love more funding to work with. Having more agencies in Dallas contribute money and time would make the experience at the center so much richer for seniors.

As a member of the Senior Hunger Action Team, it was very beneficial to me to have this opportunity to visit these sites, and I would like to extend a personal thank you to Beatrice Carter, Candace Thompson, and Jeanette Manzano for being so accommodating and answering all of my questions. As long as there are people like you working toward helping seniors, then we are already working in the right direction.

This post was written and contributed to the blog by Charlotte Johnson, Communications Coordinator for the Dallas office of the Texas Hunger Initiative. 

The Family Garden Demonstration Project Update: Week 10

garden03As we transition into the 10th week of the Family Garden Demonstration Pilot Project (FGDPP) we have seen leaves change to the many colors of the earth, temperatures drop low enough to see our breaths in conversation and Garden Soxx continue to grow steadily despite the unexpected cold winds.

With 10 weeks of experience caring for and maintaining their gardens, families have been learning a lot about what it means and what it takes to grow their own food in North Texas.

Avon and her husband used to plant rows of different vegetables, fruits and herbs in their backyard as a way to stay connected to their rural Texas upbringing.  After her husband became ill and passed away, their garden became a mere loving memory as it became too burdensome to maintain on her own.  With the FGDPP, the prospect of growing her own food again became a revival of those experiences toiling with the earth and a way to re-engage with her ability to plant and care for the growth of another breathing, living thing. To date, Avon has harvested 24 green beans, 10 radishes and 1 cup of cilantro during this fall planting season. While radishes are not her favorite, she was able to pass them off to the neighborhood kids who happen to be some of the only people I know who fervently eat radishes!

So what does it mean when an experienced gardener using the Garden Soxx in North Texas harvests a miniscule amount of food in one garden01growing season, not nearly enough to supplement a single person’s food intake? It means that these gardens had more symbolic and unexpected positive consequences including: families reconnecting with historical and familial gardening knowledge that is often lost when one moves into an urban landscape, learning/honing in on new or rarely used gardening skills because low-income neighborhoods are less likely to own or have access to ample land for a garden, and teaching their young children through participatory action where food comes from and how to tend for another living thing that in turn gives us life. Communities were united and engaged in reciprocal learning as families included neighborhood children in the watering and maintenance of the gardens, families and communities (re)engaged in their faith by seeing the works of a higher being enact itself in the growth of the gardens, communities became stronger as they added another skill in their arsenal of self-determining tactics, and communities focused on capacity development in their (our) quest for social equity.

Springing forward, it also means that families utilizing the garden soxx need much more support and guidance throughout the gardening process than what was initially anticipated and that host organizations looking to expand the program into the spring season need to be very intentional about when they plant, where they plagarden02nt, how they plant, what vegetables they plant and what systems and connections they have in place to help support the maintenance and the overall success of these gardens in improving families’ food security. The beauty of these gardens is that the soil can be used for up to 2 full years, leaving families with 3 more seasons to hone in their gardening skills and self-determine how they want to engage with food and health for their own families.

Final and in-depth recommendations on best practices in growing food in the Garden Soxx will be made available in late December/early January. Stay tuned.


This post was written and contributed to the blog by Wendy Ortiz, Emerson Hunger Fellow