AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — When schools closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, kids not only missed out on the sense of normalcy, social interactions and structure provided by their schools, but many also missed out on two daily meals.

Earlier in the year, the High Plains Food Bank estimated that one-in-five kids on the Texas Panhandle was food insecure; now, it estimates that statistic to be one-in-three.

Community members, organizations and school districts stepped in to fill that increased need, and continue to feed kids.

A food distribution site in Amarillo (KAMR Photo)
A drive-thru food distribution site in Amarillo (KAMR Photo)

Tremaine Brown owns Shi Lee’s BBQ and Soul Food. He started giving lunches to hungry kids free of charge back in March. Now, his restaurant has partnered with the High Plains Food Bank’s Kid’s Cafe and has given away nearly 90,000 meals. He says he noticed the need in his neighborhood immediately.

“During the pandemic, with so many people losing jobs, some families went from double-income families to zero income families. So they really needed that assistance,” Brown says.

Between Amarillo and Canyon school districts and the Kid’s Cafe, more than 41,000 meals are served every day, and more than one million meals were served through Amarillo ISD’s drive and walk-up food distribution sites in March and April. That program usually runs in the summer but this year it started early because of the increased need caused by the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, with so many people losing jobs, some families went from double-income families to zero income families. So they really needed that assistance.”

Tremaine Brown, Owner of Shi-Lee’s BBQ and Soul Food

Chartwells Resident District Manager for Amarillo ISD, Matt Buck puts that one million meals into perspective: “While a million meals is a lot, it’s really probably close to maybe a sixth of what we were used to.”

Even though it was less than was needed, Buck says it still helped.

“Several different community members and family members talked about how much it really helped their families and how much they appreciated it. And, it seemed to operate pretty smoothly. It seemed like everybody was pretty happy with it. And, it had a huge, huge effect and help for our community,” Buck said.

Expanding their reach

To meet the growing need, Kid’s Cafe has added additional meal sites, and Program Director Maribel Sotelo says the kitchen where they usually make and package the meals is now a site where people can get food, too.

A food distribution site in Amarillo (KAMR Photo)
The Kids Cafe Kitchen has a new outdoor refrigerator that contains meals for up to 40 people (KAMR Photo)

“We also turned our kitchen into a site, which is exciting because we were standing outside for the 30 minutes after school every day,” Sotelo said. “And we have our regulars that come by and they pick up their meal. But we’ve added a fridge to the outdoor section of our building and that sees about 40 people a day. Forty meals are served out of that fridge daily.”

Importantly, Sotelo says, their food is available to anyone who is hungry, no questions asked.

“We definitely believe in feeding kids with dignity,” she said. “And, part of that process of asking for food is difficult enough as it is for anyone, especially for kids.”

Further challenges: Funding and staffing

One challenge the schools and agencies are facing is staffing. Buck says that on a given day, they are having to juggle staff who are out because they are sick with COVID-19 or having to quarantine to the tune of around 50 people.

Grant money from the USDA and the State of Texas is also allowing Canyon ISD to provide free meals to all students under the age of 18 and Amarillo ISD has applied for the same funding.

Food distributed to kids in need in Amarillo (KAMR Photo)
Kid’s Cafe meals prepared in the High Plains Food Bank’s on-side Kid’s Cafe kitchen in Amarillo (KAMR Photo)

However, Dr. Darryl Flusche the Superintendent for Canyon ISD believes that funding may run out as soon as December.

“Even though we knew that this opportunity is going to be for a short time period — I say short, we don’t anticipate that it will go throughout the school year unless the waiver can be extended. We said ‘For a time period it can make a difference. Let’s create this opportunity for all of our students.'”

That will be a problem for the families who rely on it, but Superintendent Flusche says, for now, it’s helping.

“We had a student who picked up their lunch, and this is what they told our cafeteria service person, they said, ‘My mom wanted me to tell you, thanks for allowing us to have free meals in my family because we’ll be able to pay our electric bill this month.’ It’s pretty real. That’s where a lot of our families are. And the fact that we chose to offer this benefit even though it’s for a limited time, it makes a difference today.”

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.