Vending machines to provide free meals for area children

WESLACO — This isn’t your average giveaway.

The Texas Hunger Initiative, in partnership with Share Our Strength, will soon unveil a unique pilot project in Weslaco that aims to provide free meals to local children.

Beginning at 9 a.m. Monday, the Valley Nature Center, located at 301 S. Border Ave. in Weslaco, will be home to two vending machines stocked with up to 140 meals-on-the-go for youth ages 18 and under. PepsiCo’s Food For Good, which has served more than 8 million free meals to low-income children since 2008, is providing the meals and Share Our Strength is financing the effort, according to Debra Franco, child hunger outreach specialist for the THI regional office in McAllen.

Franco explained that Share Our Strength first partnered with THI, an extension of Baylor University, on the Texas No Kid Hungry campaign in 2011. The vending machines at the center represent one of three collaborative pilots between the two organizations and the only one of its kind in Texas, and just the third in the United States. The other two machines are located in Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

Children can enroll in the project by visiting the center, where they’ll be eligible for two free meals every day through Aug. 22.

Meals include healthy cereals for breakfast, which come with milk and a spoon, and three lunch options that consist of various sandwiches, such as peanut butter and jelly, and Lunchables.

“Ideally, a family can come and receive breakfast and lunch from these machines, and they can do it once or twice a day,” Franco said. “It’s not a congregated sitting site where parents and children have to sit in a cafeteria setting. We’ll also be gathering data to see if this might meet a need for children on weekends, holidays, during spring and summer breaks or after school hours, because the possibilities for machines like this are limitless.”

No documentation, such as utility bills or legal residency, will be required to enroll children in the program. Franco further explained that the decision to locate the machines in Weslaco was due to the immediate need in the area. Specifically, Franco identified the city has having more colonias than other cities in the Rio Grande Valley. What’s more, Feeding America, which according to its website is a nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries, cites the Valley as home to more than 147,000 children who live in “food-insecure households.”

“This vulnerability is particularly acute during the holidays and summer when regular school meals are not accessible to children,” a THI press release read. “The pilot project seeks to address these barriers by testing a new, innovative model that will provide free meals to children seven days a week.”

Of the nature center’s role, executive director Hollie Johnston added, “Being very aware of the need we have in Weslaco, we are so proud to have been chosen for this pilot program. We hope to help bring awareness to the necessity for food programs that help fill the gaps where school programs are not available while also offering the opportunity to experience nature.”

For State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., the effort is deeper than a “moral obligation.”

“I commend the Valley Nature Center for its leadership in launching this pilot project in the Mid-Valley,” Lucio said in the release. “I’m honored to support the efforts of the Texas Hunger Initiative and Share Our Strength’s campaign to address the very real struggle faced by hungry children in the Rio Grande Valley. This campaign is more than a moral obligation; it’s a shared value of support for the success of young Texans.”

Lucio will join local officials, including Mayor David Suarez, for the pilot’s kick-off on Monday.

Additional credit was given to the Valley Nature Center for hosting the machines and providing its staff’s assistance in the campaign.

“…Access to food is a very real problem in the RGV, and particularly for children during the summer,” Franco stressed. “Organizations across the region are finding creative solutions, and we hope that children and families will utilize them. We need the entire region to be aware of the need here and to work together to find solutions.”

For more information, call the Valley Nature Center at (956) 969-2475.