Hope in the Desert

Story by Karry Liu | Photo by Penelope Shirey

Waco contains multiple food deserts — urban areas in which it is difficult to access affordable or good-quality fresh food, usually found in impoverished regions.

One of the effects of a food desert is food insecurity, which largely affects children. Nearly 28,000 children in McLennan County don’t know where their next meal will come from. Many households lack financial and transportation-related resources, making it difficult to secure consistent and holistic meals vital to a child’s development. Pack of Hope combats the pressure put on families by the food deserts.

Photo by Penelope Shirey

Co-founded by Jane Bounds and Cliff Reece, Pack of Hope exists to erase child hunger in McLennan County. It supplies eligible students with backpacks of food to last them through the weekend. About 80 percent of the children in the Waco area who receive free and reduced lunch or subsidized meals are eligible for the Pack of Hope program. Donating $195 or 165 pounds of food provides one child with weekend packs for a year.

Pack of Hope’s donors include all types of groups and individuals. Churches and organizations such as St. Paul Episcopal, Grande Communications and Baylor Athletics have partnered with Pack of Hope. In the past, a truck has even been brought to Baylor University for students and faculty to donate food or money to the cause.

Pack of Hope’s main source of volunteers is the Baylor student body. At least 40 students from the Baylor chapter of the American Medical Student Association come in every Wednesday morning to help fill backpacks.

Photo by Penelope Shirey

The main focus of Pack of Hope is making sure children receive proper nutrition. The initiative started with the realization that children were returning to schools Monday morning hungry because the last time they had a full meal was Friday afternoon when they ate at school.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, hunger results in discomfort, illness, weakness or pain. This can be detrimental to developing children.

Dinh Tran, Pack of Hope board member, explains how hunger negatively affects children’s ability to learn.

“Without nutrition, without food, children are hungry,” Tran said. “A lot of children then can’t learn. It’s all they can think about — the pain in their stomach — so learning is never there. Information that was given to them is not absorbed. Plus, if nutrition is not there, then the brain development is definitely not there.”

Standard plastic grocery bags are filled with 18 to 20 items of nutritional food such as tuna meals, granola bars and fresh fruit. These bags are given to students every Friday without fail, and are large enough to last a single child for the weekend. Holidays and breaks are no exception.

One of Pack of Hope’s milestones is the guarantee of year-round service. During the summer, Pack of Hope loads buses with food and drives out to apartment complexes to feed children. This upcoming summer will be their third year of the summer feeding program.

Pack of Hope currently serves over 1,200 children in 18 school districts such as Lorena ISD, Robinson ISD and Waco ISD.

“The 1,000 backpacks per week — that was a bit of a crowning achievement,” Tran said. “I mean, we did it. When we first started out, we were at about 20 backpacks. Then we went up to 1,000. It was a wonderful thing.”

Pack of Hope’s ultimate goal is to develop the program to where they will be able to take care of every child on free and reduced lunch in McLennan County. Some school districts within McLennan County, such as Robinson ISD, are already close to that goal. About 80 percent of children on free and reduced lunch in Robinson ISD receive a Pack of Hope.

Each school district receives a unique amount of backpacks as a result of a formula Pack of Hope devised. Using data from the government to determine how many children in that area receive subsidized meals, Pack of Hope then determines how many children they can serve based on that percentage.

Within a school, school counselors dictate which children receive a pack because counselors are able to identify which children receive subsidized meals and are in need of proper nutrition.

According to Bounds, those who lead Pack of Hope do not know the name, nor the face, of any child who receives a backpack. It is entirely anonymous.

“We do not know any of the children that receive our food. We know numbers. The outcome of Pack of Hope that we hear are the testimonials from the professionals that work with these children, or at fundraisers when people come up and say they’ve received our food and are grateful for what we do,” Bounds said.

When the demand for food packs overwhelms the amount of available food supplies for children, school districts must turn to other resources such as food drives and monetary donations. According to Tran, some educators will donate a portion of their salary on a weekly basis to go toward making sure a child is fed properly.

Pack of Hope wants to bring awareness to the local community that not all children have the necessary nutrition to be healthy.

“It’s important for the community of McLennan County to come together as one and to help these children stay in school, be able to learn and concentrate and learn social skills. Some aren’t in school because their stomachs are rumbling,” Bounds said. “We want them to be in school.”

When recounting his happiest moment with Pack of Hope, Tran smiled warmly.

“It’s when the lightbulb goes off — when they realize all they have to do is speak to the right person within their school system,” Tran said. “It’s that easy. Those happy moments are when the message got through, and we’re able to serve more people within the Waco area. Our dream is to always speak that message all the time.”

Pack of Hope also plans to have food donation stations developed from cargo boxes in the future. Making donating easier and more accessible for recipients may encourage the McLennan County community to donate their leftover food and canned goods to help the cause, rather than simply throwing food away in the trash.

Pack of Hope brings hope to the desert.

“I mean there are so many causes out there, but this is geared towards children that can’t help themselves. It’s very specific. It’s children that can’t go out and get their food, don’t have a car or they’re in a situation where they can’t reach out to anyone for help,” Tran said. “We have to help them.”