Most of our work at “Hunger News & Hope” surrounds hunger and food insecurity among individuals experiencing poverty. One such connection between poverty and hunger is the increased likelihood of families experiencing poverty to reside in a community with limited access to affordable, healthy foods, also known as a “food desert.”
Living in areas of concentrated poverty, however, means that families with children are not only situated in such “food deserts” but they are often living in “book deserts” as well. Compared to their wealthier counterparts, these families have relatively little access to print or online reading materials.
Specifically, many families in low-income communities do not possess many (or any) books at home. Even when public libraries or bookstores are only a short car ride away, inadequate transportation can render these resources frustratingly out of reach for these families.
Although libraries in neighborhood-based public schools fill some of the resource gaps, providing vital access to children’s books during the school year, these school libraries are closed during the summer when children have an arguably greater need for reading materials. Similarly, although school breakfast and lunch programs can help provide desperately needed food for children during the school year, hunger and food insecurity do not stop during the summer months when school is out of session.
So, while children in higher income families look forward to summer as a time filled with joyful play, family road trips taking in spectacular scenic vistas, summer camps swimming with friends or learning to canoe and freedom to lounge around reading, summer can represent a time of intensified hunger (for food and for books) for children living in high poverty communities.
While free United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) summer meal sites, non-congregate meal programs and meal delivery social services (such as Meals-To-You or Kids Meals Inc.), summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) scale-up provisions and community-based food pantries help to provide summer nutrition to school-age children who receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch during the school year, most communities lack comprehensive strategies to address “book hunger” during the summer. Literacy Connexus is working to change that.
Since 2004, Literacy Connexus has been equipping churches to address the literacy needs of marginalized persons in Texas and beyond. Literacy Connexus has recently recruited Dr. Linda English to spearhead its efforts to scale up and expand its What’s For Lunch? initiative, which aims to foster literacy and mitigate the summer learning losses experienced by children in low-income communities who have limited access to books and other print materials.
Although program details vary from site to site, pilot programs for the initiative have established lending libraries and reading activities to operate concurrently with USDA and church-operated free summer meal programs–feeding bodies and minds during the summer months.
Dr. English is uniquely positioned to take on this challenge. She took an unconventional path through education: leaving school in the summer following eighth grade, then later—as a single mother—resuming her educational journey, earning her GED certificate, enrolling in a community college, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Oklahoma State University, and, ultimately, earning her PhD in economics from Vanderbilt University.
She has been teaching economics courses (including a course on the economics of poverty and discrimination) at Baylor University for the past 14 years. She recently resigned her full-time position at Baylor to follow her passion of expanding book access for children in under-resourced communities.
She attributes her ability to succeed, despite taking a non-traditional route through higher education, to her strong reading skills and a love of learning developed through reading throughout her early childhood years. Along with the team at Literacy Connexus, Dr. English will draw on her economics training and experience operating a lending library at a USDA summer meal site to pursue the goal of making books available to all Texas children residing in food insecure households.
We recently caught up with Dr. English and asked her a few questions about this new passion.
COOK: You seem to have an unusual passion for education for children in under-resourced communities. Where do you think that passion comes from?
ENGLISH: Although I currently have sufficient household income to avoid food insecurity and poverty, that has not always been the case. As a single parent, with only an eighth-grade education, I found myself working three jobs (waitressing, house cleaning and working in retail) and still needing help to make ends meet.
This is not an unusual story for families in under-resourced communities. What is unusual, though, is that a strong educational foundation formed during my pre-kindergarten through elementary years enabled me to resume my educational journey, to essentially escape long-term food insecurity and poverty, by attending school while I worked multiple jobs.
Education presented a path to financial stability for me, but this path is not always open to individuals who attend under-resourced elementary schools, who lack reading materials at home and other reading enrichment opportunities, and who fall behind in advancing their literacy capabilities. These youths are less likely to graduate from high school and—even when they do graduate—they face diminished opportunities for work or higher education. While the strong foundation of early learning and development of literacy is not a panacea for improving the opportunities for children in under-resourced communities, a large body of academic research suggests that this strong foundation is a crucial part of the story.
COOK: Your educational path was unconventional— starting with GED credentials, then going all the way through to a PhD. How does that affect your outlook on education?
ENGLISH: Most importantly, my path affords me a glimpse into the precious nature of education…It is a privilege that I thought I had forfeited after dropping out of school at such a young age. I attribute my ability to course-correct and ultimately pursue higher education to my love of reading and strong reading capabilities.
COOK: What caused you to become interested in economics?
ENGLISH: Starting community college as a single parent, I felt that business-related fields of study held the most potential for career advancement. After taking my first economics course, though, I recognized economics to be a lens that I could look through to better understand the world and the study of economics to include analytical tools that can be used to promote human flourishing.
COOK: How do you envision the proposed expansion of the “What’s for Lunch?” initiative?
ENGLISH: Several tools exist to address the heightened need for food assistance during summer months. Our vision is to equip partners who are devoted to improving literacy and education outcomes in their communities to utilize existing tools for addressing food insecurity to also make books available during the summer for families who need them. By serving households already receiving food assistance and by leveraging the existing resources and distribution channels (such as free meal sites, food banks, mail-based food delivery), What’s for Lunch? programs are designed to enhance equity in access to reading materials in a cost-effective way. We are currently building partnerships with key stakeholders (schools, libraries, food banks, USDA summer meal sponsors and literacy advocates) and are seeking funding to formalize and initiate pilot programs for each component of the program. Careful design of the pilot programs will include feedback loops that allow for course correction in subsequent stages of the process as we establish best practices for sustainability and scale of these pilot programs.
COOK: If money and human resources were no obstacle, what would you dream of doing?
ENGLISH: I dream of reshaping book deserts into oases for reading, so that every child—regardless of their household’s income level—has opportunities to develop a love of reading and to enjoy reading books at home. Although realizing the dream will take more than just eliminating the barriers to book access that What’s for Lunch? programs target, we view these programs as moving in the direction of that dream.
COOK: What has brought you the most joy from this work?
ENGLISH: Building connections with families participating in the What’s for Lunch? program and witnessing how the program has impacted them. For example, a parent who consistently brought her preschool-age children to the Book Nook operating at a USDA summer feeding site in Waco told me: “My children never liked reading before, but since they’ve been coming to eat, read and check out books, they are always crawling up in my lap asking me to read to them…I even stopped at a garage sale to buy some 25-cent books for them to have at home for them to read.” Seeing sparks like this and recognizing the potential for them to ignite love and lifelong habits of reading in these families has brought me tremendous joy.
Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared in the summer issue of Hunger News & Hope.
Katie Cook has been editor for Seeds of Hope Publishers, including Seeds Magazine, Hunger News & Hope and Sacred Seasons since 1991. She also served for 22 years as editor for Baptist Peacemaker, the journal/magazine of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. For more about Seeds of Hope, visit www.seedspublishers.org.