Healthy Youth Project: $97,000 grant aims to combat food insecurity in Dallas ISD

Story by Whitney Carter. Photos provided by DHK Wellness Solutions and taken at Lincoln High School in Dallas ISD.

This holiday season, a leading wellness initiative is receiving a $97,000 grant to help fight food insecurity in Dallas ISD schools.

DHK Wellness, which stands for Debra’s Healing Kitchen, will use the grant to propel the progress of its groundbreaking Healthy Youth Project in collaboration with Dallas ISD. The generous donation is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) Patrick Leahy Farm to School Grant.

Debra Peek-Haynes, president and founder of the program, says that the donation is significant because of its impact. The North Texas Food Bank estimates that more than 600,000 people in our community are dealing with food insecurity, many of whom are children.

The numbers are much of the same from the USDA. They report that 15.5 percent of households in Texas do not have consistent access to healthy and affordable food. These numbers show that Texas has the second-highest rate of food insecurity in the nation.

In many cases, the only healthy meals children get in a day are the ones that come from school. So, what happens when school is out for holiday breaks and for the summer? That’s where the Healthy Youth Project hopes to fill the hunger gaps, according to Debra.

“DHK Wellness Strategies was created to address the needs of youth, children, and adults in inner cities with a specific focus on African American and Hispanic communities,” Debra says. “We consult with licensed healthcare professionals to devise plans and workshops to address health-related issues in under-served communities.”

The Healthy Youth Project offers information and provides solutions to create healthier lives even in their current environment. Debra explains that they encourage the students to share the information we teach with their families. She believes that children and youth can be catalysts to impact their families and communities positively.

Debra has been featured on several North Texas news programs and publications, spreading her love to help but also giving necessary information for the public to understand the issue is much worse than many think. According to Debra, food insecurity only worsened as we saw inflation climb to levels the country had not seen in more than 40 years. For many families, that meant buying groceries became more expensive than many people had seen in their lifetimes.

Debra says that 70 percent of students in Dallas ISD currently qualify for free lunch programs, and many of those students they serve live in food deserts.

Since its inception in 2018, the organization has done extensive research and uncovered the relationships between academic performance, emotional and physical health, and a person’s diet, especially regarding children. Armed with that knowledge, they work to educate the public about what it means not just for children now, but for their futures.

“We teach students the importance of eating fresh produce, clean water, and the impact the environment can have on our health during the school year,” Debra says. “During the summer months and beyond, we hire students to assist with the garden at our church, Friendship-West Baptist Church, where my husband is a pastor.”

The development of this urban garden is a significant part of what the Healthy Youth Project aims to accomplish. There, the students learn how to plant and cultivate organic crops. They use the produce to prepare meals for the community to purchase and to help raise money for the school.

The food that has been grown recently is going to more than 1,000 students in Dallas ISD who may have otherwise gone without during the holiday break.

While their efforts are focused on closing the food insecurity gap for so many, she also said the education they provide is invaluable.

“It is essential that our children learn the importance of proper nutrition,” Debra explains. “According to my research, Black and Brown children are targeted to eat junk food. This can impact not only their physical health but also their mental wellness. In many of these communities, there are many
fast food establishments instead of multiple grocery stores and affordable full-service
restaurants. We want to encourage our students to grow their own vegetables and know that
they can choose wisely what they eat.”

All of this work culminates in showing students how they can eat healthy and be healthy from the inside out with just a little love and support.

Debra hopes to continue to grow their efforts through the DHK Wellness Strategies and Healthy Youth Project through their efforts and the help of community support.

“Certainly, additional funding will assist us in expanding our capacity. We are a 501(c)3 organization. If anyone living in the neighborhood of the schools we service would like to volunteer with the gardens, that would be a big help,” she says.

If you would like to learn more about the Healthy Youth Project, volunteer, or get involved, you can do so through their website.