HopeAustin bridges the food gap for some local families

By CYNTHIA PICKERRELL, Four Points News & Photos by ERIN LEE

Poverty, hunger and neglect are not realities often associated with affluent areas like Four Points but as HopeAustin co-founders Monica von Waaden and Zee Nariman have found that no community is immune to hunger. 

HopeAustin is a non-profit that meets the needs of hungry school children including about 80 students in the Four Points area who attend Steiner Ranch Elementary, River Place Elementary, Four Points Middle School and Vandegrift High School.

“When you’re at school, you probably don’t know who is hungry,” said von Waaden, who is from the Canyon Creek neighborhood. She recently told a group of volunteers, including many teen boys that, “no one says they’re hungry, no kid wants to be called out … or say ‘my parents can’t feed me.’”

HopeAustin bridges the food gap between Friday and Monday for students who receive free and reduced priced lunches during the week but have little food at home. Relying entirely upon donations and volunteers, the organization provides six meals to 1,200 students in the Austin area every weekend of the school year.  The group never turns away a needy student. 

“It’s sad to see there’s a growing need but awesome they can meet that need,” said Julie Petrucelli, a frequent National Charity League volunteer who is from Steiner.

HopeAustin was established four years ago by two friends, von Waaden and Nariman, who spent their motherhood volunteering at their own children’s schools in the Round Rock ISD. Wanting to continue helping their community as empty nesters, they discovered an unmet need. Though hungry students have breakfast and lunch provided during the school week, they go home to weekends with few or no meals, in cases, and some return to school too weak to learn. 

“They’re the ones without a snack at snack time. They’re tired all the time, their brains just aren’t working,” said Rindy Kress, an elementary teacher at Ronald Reagan Elementary School who describes the symptoms of hungry students. “They start asking about lunch time at nine in the morning.” 

Kress is also the wife of one of the six board members managing HopeAustin and said the numbers of kids served has nearly doubled in just the last year.

All aspects of need are considered in helping the students. The students receive breakfast, lunch, dinner, a snack and protein drink for both Saturday and Sunday.  Protein is a priority (like tuna and peanut butter), so that children get the right nutrition for growth. Even variety is a priority, “so it’s not the same items every time – they get choice,” said von Waaden.

Privacy is also key.  Each bag of food is sized to be discreet, fitting inside a student’s backpack. 

“Some students would rather not receive a bag than be noticed,” she added.

Similar to the Leander ISD “backpack” program, which also provides weekend meals to needy students, AustinHope is larger in scale. Plastic bags are also preferred because backpacks are harder to transport and not always returned.

Just as the donations are discreet, so are the names. When school counselors learn of student need, they simply ask for additional food bags. 

“There’s no reason to really know names. We trust teachers and counselors. And we never say no, never turn away a school. God will always provide, I firmly believe that,” said von Waaden.

HopeAustin, in turn, educates teachers on the symptoms of food insecurity so they can report hungry students to counselors. 

Every three weeks, 39 schools in five school districts receive the meals. Though simple in concept, HopeAustin’s food bag production is extremely organized and growing in scale every week. 

Behind the scenes, there’s an ongoing effort to gather donations and grants. For example, the Vandegrift Lady Viper basketball team had a food drive at their Jan. 24th home game.

While food drives provide 10 percent of items, the rest comes about by thrifty shoppers – namely von Waaden and Nariman – who purchase items through a co-op, Sam’s Club and even H-E-B if coupons can be applied to large quantities.

Once gathered, the food is brought to a public storage area. Mother-daughter volunteers from the North Austin chapter of NCL faithfully show up every third Wednesday evening to open boxes and organize all the food into large bins. Even plastic bags need to be prepped, pulled from containers and shaken out for assembly day.  

This January marked the most prep work the NCL volunteers have managed yet.  

Then on Sundays, about 70 volunteers arrive and start the process of filling bags.  Three tables are set up outside the storage building, bins organized and volunteers walk through the line.   

“It’s a festive, social time,” said von Waaden. Volunteers include mothers and sons from the Young Men’s Service League, as well as friends and family of the co-founders.  “If you happen to be visiting us, you’ll be working,” joked Nariman.

Up until now, HopeAustin squeezes into two, fairly small storage rooms – temporary space totalling 800-square-feet. Not much room for the 37,000 units of food they are currently distributing. However, von Waaden and Nariman are hoping to soon acquire a 2,100 square foot warehouse that will allow permanent set up and a covered work area. 

Currently the assembly takes place outside their storage building and remarkably, they have never been rained on during assembly their four-year’s time.

On Mondays, the driving volunteers are called and assigned routes to disperse the bagged meals to schools all across Austin. The five school districts include Leander, Round Rock, Austin, Manor and Elgin. And in addition to weekend meals, HopeAustin also provides supplies for food or snack closets at five schools.

Schools are grateful and have honored HopeAustin. Knowing they are helping children and the schools is truly all the thanks they need.  

“The bottom line is that we’re making a child happy,” said von Waaden. “It’s a full-time job, but there’s no looking back.”

How to help: 

HopeAustin accepts financial donations and is always looking for organizations and businesses to host food drives. To conduct food drives, please email board@hope4austin.org.

New volunteers are also welcome and are needed for bagging events, meal kit delivery and assistance in picking up food items from local grocers. Prospective volunteers can also email board@hope4austin.org.

Giving platforms:

Via Paypal at www.Hope4Austin.org

Via Venmo@HopeAustin

Via text 4PT-HopeAustin to 443-21

Via US Post to 13809 Research Blvd, Suite 810, Austin, TX 78750

L-R Lisa Harris volunteers at HopeAustin with founders Monica von Waaden and Zee Nariman.
Photos by Erin Lee
HopeAustin volunteers include Rive Ridge Elementary principal Shelley Roberts (right) and her daughter, Tess, a sophomore Cedar Park HS. ERIN LEE
HopeAustin volunteers from St. Thomas More Catholic Church on Jan. 19 including these Steiner Ranch and River Place residents. ERIN LEE