When summer means hunger, mobile food pantries help close the gap

When school is out, the hunger gap opens for too many children who rely on subsidized meals at school. Twelve million children in the United States don’t have enough to eat, but Starbucks is striving to help change that by funding mobile pantries that bring free, fresh food into communities.

All she wanted was to check out a book on dragonflies.

Kirsten Casteel was 12 when her science class was assigned to research bugs. She chose dragonflies as her topic and went to the school library to learn more. At least she tried. Her class was on the first floor; the library was on the second. And, on that day, shortly before summer began, she was so tired the stairs between seemed insurmountable.

“I remember taking one step and then feeling like I couldn’t lift my leg high enough to get it up the next step. So, I sat down,” she said.

What almost no one knew was that at home, she didn’t have enough to eat. And without fuel, she didn’t have any energy.

At an early age, Casteel knew what no child should have to know – that real hunger wasn’t just a growling stomach, that it deepened into an ache, and that once the gnawing in your stomach subsided, it caused your head to ache, your mind to slow and turned into an exhaustion that settles all the way into your bones. Sometimes it can cause you to pass out. Other times it feels like your heart is pounding out of your chest.

It hadn’t always been that way. Casteel, a Starbucks store manager in San Antonio, Texas, remembers an early childhood with a vibrant family. But when she was 7, her mother, Carole, died of a brain tumor, leaving three young girls and a husband who was so distraught that he fell into a deep depression and soon left his career in the military. After that, money was always tight.

During the school year, the three girls could get free meals at school. But on the weekends and the summers, they were on their own. “For most kids, summer was a great thing,” she said. “But for us, we didn’t know where we’d eat.”

That’s the case for too many children across America. One in six children in the United States doesn’t have enough to eat, according to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief non-profit organization. And, when summer arrives, many who rely on free or reduced lunches at school are left not knowing where the next meal is coming from.

Food bank trucks loaded with fresh produce and more that go into communities to give food away, called mobile pantries, are helping to fill that gap and feed some of the more than 40 million people in the United States who face hunger. That number that includes 12 million children and 5 million seniors.

“I always tell people, don’t focus on the number, focus on the need,” said Rudy Valencia, director of the Second Harvest Food Bank in Manteca, Calif.

A year ago, Second Harvest launched its mobile pantry program, which is designed to meet people where they are. Multiple times a week, the truck goes to schools and other places in the community where people can select fresh fruits and vegetables as well as other items.

“This morning we had 250 people at the first location and then 167 at the second,” Valencia said. Each person in line often represents three or four more people at home, he said. As with many food banks, funding is always a concern.

To help meet that need, Starbucks is investing $1.5 million in mobile pantry programs for 17 food banks around the country. Some of the food banks currently have mobile pantries and the funding will help support them and allow them to do more deliveries. Others will be getting their first mobile pantry trucks.

“It was such a relief to find out (about the Starbucks donation),” said Valencia. “It gives us the green light to help the program keep going.”

Starbucks is committed to helping feed the hungry through donations, said Jane Maly, senior manager leading the Starbucks FoodShare program. In the past three years, the company has partnered with Feeding America to give away 15 million meals through FoodShare, which donates unsold, nourishing food from Starbucks stores to local food banks, including Second Harvest.

But the company wanted to do more, said Maly. So, she started asking food banks a simple question: What would you do if you had unlimited resources?

For many, the answer was to bring food to the people who need it most – and meet them where they are at – through mobile pantries.

Maly said she sees it as part of a ripple effect. “The foundation is FoodShare – donating our own surplus food. Next, we invest in food banks’ infrastructure and building capacity. Then, how do we start using food banks as community hubs?” she said. “With each ripple, the impact gets a little bit bigger.”

Many of the food banks are in so-called food deserts, areas without access to a grocery store – and many residents have no real way to get to one. For those living in poverty without access to a car or bus, even getting to a food bank can be an insurmountable obstacle.

“There is a lot of hunger in our town – and in the country – that people just don’t realize,” said Jay Simmonds, assistant superintendent in the Ceres Unified School District in California’s Central Valley. There, 80 to 85 percent of the 14,000 students in the district eat subsidized meals, he said.

“People will come to school and they don’t look poor. They are dressed in clean clothes. It’s doesn’t jump out that they are hungry and a lot of times they are.”

‘Have you eaten breakfast?’

Before Casteel’s mom got sick, they used to play games of “let’s pretend.” She and her daughters would pretend they were best friends going on an adventure – sometimes as astronauts headed into space. Other times they’d draw or paint. When her dad was deployed, the three girls would rotate taking turns sleeping in their mom’s bed with her.

Before she died, Casteel’s mom made a last request of her: to watch out for her sisters. “I did my best to make sure they had what they needed,” Casteel said.

Sometimes at home, she’d lead them in a game of pretend, like they once did with their mom. They’d take whatever food they could find and imagine it was a grand meal. “We’d take a can of beans and squish it on some bread and call ourselves master chefs,” she said.

She made sure that her sisters didn’t skip any of the free meals offered at school – breakfast and lunch -- since they didn’t know if there’d be much to eat at home. School was their respite.

Before her mom died, Casteel remembers happily playing outside all summer. After, she’d try to stay inside because the heat would drain her and she’d pass out. In hindsight, she says, she realizes it’s because she didn’t have enough to eat.

She thinks about the difference a mobile pantry would have made in her life. “It would have had a really big impact for me and my sisters. We would have been able to think, ‘We’re hungry and this is available and let’s get something to eat.’”

Simmonds, the assistant school superintendent, said having access to mobile pantries comes down to one thing for the families in his district. “It means health,” he said. “Things are tenfold better when kids are fed. When you don’t feed kids, they are slow and their brains aren’t working. When you’re hungry you don’t think about anything else.”

Kids who don’t have enough to eat are more likely to likely to face developmental delays, repeat a grade in school and have social and behavioral issues, according to Feeding America.

“We see a lot of kids where when they act out the first question you ask is ‘have you eaten breakfast,’ and many times they haven’t, said Simmonds.

Two years ago, Simmonds was able to secure federal funding to provide meals to school kids even during the summers. Now, with Second Harvest’s mobile pantry going to schools, their parents can also get groceries for them to eat at home.

Before that, he sometimes saw kids dropping out of school to get a job and help earn money so the family could buy food.

Feeding families helps end that cycle, said Maly. “One of the things we really care about is how can we get to the root of the issue and nip it. If kids’ bellies are full, they can learn, graduate and go on to get jobs.”

Easing a burden

Many of the families Second Harvest serves are the working poor or people who have experienced a reversal in circumstances, Valencia said. “For whatever reason, the money just doesn’t stretch far enough.”

After Anna McCuistion, 61, pays her essential bills, she’s left with $100 a month to cover food, gas for her car and personal items. “When I go grocery shopping the money doesn’t go very far,” she said. “At times I have to buy medications.”

For years before she became a client of Second Harvest, she was a volunteer fund-raiser for the food bank. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Now McCuistion, 61, lives on a fixed income and is limited on what she can eat. A friend persuaded her to start going to the mobile pantry. “Healthy food is so expensive,” she said. “But the food (from the mobile pantry) fills my refrigerator. There’s fresh fruit and vegetables. I have better choices.”

Having healthy options – and knowing someone has their back – is the whole point of the food pantries, said Valencia.

“You’ll see a dad standing in line and you give him 50 pounds of groceries and it’s like someone has lifted 25,000 pounds from his shoulders,” he said. “We are meeting people where they are at.”

Today, Casteel is a mother herself to a 2-year-old daughter named Annora. She went to college and is thriving as a store manager. Just as she spent her childhood helping look out for her younger sisters, she does the same now for the partners working in her store. She’s proud of the food her store donates through FoodShare and she’s committed to advocating for those who are hungry, as she once was.

She didn’t always know where to turn for help as a child. But it shouldn’t always be a child’s responsibility to ask; as a community, we have to find ways to take care of those in need, she said.

“A lot of times children might not complain or say they are hungry – but it’s our job as adults to make sure each child has enough to eat,” she said. “It’s important to be aware. I want people to know if you need help to ask for it. And if you can help, reach out.”

What is a mobile pantry?
Mobile pantries are trucks stocked with food, operated by food banks around the country, that serve communities in need at no cost. These mobile pantries often travel to schools and community hubs where people in so-called food deserts that don’t have local access to a grocery store. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, about 2.4 million rural households are located in these areas. This summer, Starbucks is donating $1.5 million to 17 food banks across the United States to support mobile pantries.

thumbnail for 2024 Starbucks summer highlights

2024 Starbucks summer highlights