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Letter From Zavala County

           Greetings from Zavala County in southwest Texas, “the spinach capital of the world”, replete with an annual spinach festival and two statues of Popeye by the town square. You might expect a place where all children eat healthy and grow strong, but  instead the child poverty rate is close to 50%, more than twice the national average and the L.A. Times reports that “The highest rate of food-insecure children (in the nation) is in Zavala County, Texas, where 83% of youths are in some jeopardy.”   

 Thanks to Chuck and Katie Dooley, and our partners at The Texas Hunger Initiative and the San Antonio Food Bank, I came down a day before a scheduled speech in Austin to visit schools, teachers and social workers. Our agenda was to learn and bear witness, and explore whether we can bring back a larger group of leaders in 2014. We flew into San Antonio, and drove a couple of hours through semi-arid brush land of mesquite trees and cacti, to Crystal City, the county seat.

            Maggie Flores runs school food service for 2000 students in four schools.  She sees hunger through the eyes of “the ladies” who work for her.  They struggle to feed their own kids, taking home only $800 a month after taxes. Many work a second job after their 6:00 a.m. to 2;00 p.m. shift. The raise they are expecting will be their first in seven years. Jobs are scarce and mostly at the Corrections Center, and the Del Monte canning factory paying a low hourly wage. Some find work in new oil fields 12 miles away, where fracking turned Carrizo Springs into a boom town a few years ago.  The result is enormous  wealth for a few far-away corporations, but a higher cost of living for all who actually live here, with rents increasing from $400 a month to the $1200 a month that oil company employees can afford.

            School breakfast participation is low across the county for the usual reasons. Four years ago Flores tried breakfast in the classroom but teachers mishandled the paperwork. That put reimbursement at risk. The experiment was cancelled.

            There is no food bank in town, although the San Antonio Food Bank holds a mobile food distribution once a month. Cars  lined up there as far as we could see. Summer school includes meals for 30 days but otherwise there’s no rec center, Boys and Girls Club, or other facility to serve as a summer meals site. We asked where families turn for help. “They bunk up together”, state rep Tracy King said, “doubling up to save on rent is their only option.”

            On our way to the elementary school cafeteria, Principal Sonia Zyla told us how she’d reversed poor attendance rates, and tried to get the faculty to model behavior of good attendance and punctuality. “My mantra is Honor Our Time whether it’s the time we set for meetings, or the time we have to do this important work together.”

            We learned of the impact of HeadStart cuts, children “strategically failing” so that they could attend summer school for the meals, and one social worker’s lament with regard to obesity and poor nutrition: “I wish they would teach them how to shop.”

            So close to the newly booming oil fields, but so far from benefitting directly or indirectly, Zavala County is but an isolated example of an increasingly dominant aspect of American life: economic growth that benefits a relative few, while the struggle of hard working families persists. This week a new study from UC Berkeley reported that in 2012 the top ten percent of earners took home more than half of the country’s total income – the highest recorded level ever.  The top one percent took more than one-fifth of the income earned by Americans.

There is a price for such inequality, and in the short-term that price gets paid by those most vulnerable, least able to afford it, and least responsible for their plight– children like those  we visited at Zavala Elementary. They pay for it through compromised health, poor literacy, and lack of opportunity. In the long run we all pay –  because we can’t have a strong America with weak kids.

After decades of bearing witness, not much surprises any more, But there was one thing: no one we met asked us for support, grants, or assistance of any kind.  It was as if decades of struggling on their own had conditioned them not to expect it. We saw the hope and determination that always characterizes places we think of as Hinges of Hope.  But imagination in Zavala County has been depleted by the oppressive heat of a scorching sun combined with the cold indifference of America’s new Gilded Age.

            And that’s why we went: to learn, to bear witness, and to make sure they knew that others cared and hoped to help make a difference.

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