As the fall-out of the recession lingers on, I am seeing more and more families in my clinic who are facing food insecurity and hunger. Many of these are families who used to be solidly middle class, but have been out of work for a year. They’ve already sold their car, their home, some of their belongings. They are running short each month. They are not sure where to turn, and they are often ashamed to talk about it.
The United States Dept of Agriculture defines food insecure households as those that, at times during the year, were “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” Their 2010 briefing on food security in the US shows a significant increase in food insecurity from an overall prevalence of 11% in 2007, to a prevalence of 14.5% in 2010. This translates to almost 49 million people who live in food insecure households, with over 16 million of these being children. There are also disparities in who hunger hits hardest. Families living under the federal poverty line, households headed by single women with children, and people living in metropolitan areas, especially in the South or the West, had higher risk. In my area of California, where the cost of living is high, this means that roughly 1 in 4 people is at risk for going hungry.
As a pediatrician and parent, seeing kids go hungry is disquieting. And, in our society, where food often goes to waste, it is simply unacceptable. Imagine sending your child to school hungry. Or, imagine being that child, trying to get through a day of school when all you can think about is how hungry you are. It would be, as Marian Wright Edelman recently observed, the worst feeling. Yet, this is more than a moral issue. It is clearly a health issue, especially for children. Children who are hungry suffer impaired growth and development and more frequent illness. And, it is an economic issue, as hungry children have higher health care costs and lower economic productivity later in life.
So, what can we do about it?
- Understand that hunger is all around us, not just in some far away enclave.
- If you are in a position where you talk to families, ask about hunger. It can feel hard at first, but questions like “Are you doing okay making ends meet?” and “In the past month, did anyone in your family go hungry because there wasn’t enough money?” can provide an opening for families who may not have had anyone to talk with about their concerns.
- Recognize that, seemingly paradoxically, obesity and hunger affect the same families and communities for reasons that are still being fully elucidated.
- Learn more about programs fighting hunger.
- The major publicly funded programs for combating hunger in children are Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly food stamps), the National School Lunch and Breakfast program, and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. SNAP, in particular, is vastly under-utilized by families who would qualify, for various reasons. In some states application and enrollment procedures are daunting and slow. In other areas, families simply do not know about the resources available. Find out what SNAP is called in your state and start talking about it.
- The publicly funded programs work in concert with a network of privately funded food banks. Find out what is available in your area. Feeding America‘s website is a great place to start
- Donate or volunteer at your local food bank.
- Start advocating. As need increases, both the public and private sector resources are feeling the pinch. There have been some recent successes. In a rare display of bi-partisanship, congress overwhelmingly passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This bill reauthorizes, and in some cases, expands, funding for programs fighting child hunger. I am happy to say that California has recently passed a number of bills reducing barriers to enrollment in SNAP and providing tax credits to growers who donate crops to food banks. But, there is much more work to be done. A 2008 study comparing prevalence of food insecurity in Canada and the United States, found that the prevalence of food insecurity in households with children in Canada was roughly half that of similar households in the United States. In the current deficit reduction talks, programs fighting hunger face significant possible cuts. Find out who your congresspeople are and let them know how you feel about that.
How is hunger affecting children in your community? Have you seen creative ways people or organizations are tackling this problem?