Child Hunger in the United States

February 14th, 2013

The Numbers

According to the 2011 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures, 17 million children in America—one child in every four—experience hunger. The numbers are staggering. Perhaps we would not be surprised if these figures came from developing countries. But in the land of McDonald’s on every corner, overflowing supermarkets, and obesity, surely this can’t be true. Yet the experts agree and indications show that the numbers will only continue to rise.

In an effort to clarify the meaning of being hungry, the USDA uses the term food security and describes households in one of four ways. High Food Security includes households where there are no problems with food access or limitations on that access. Marginal Food Security describes households in which there is anxiety over food sufficiency but no reports of changes in diet or food intake. On the other hand, in Low Food Security households, there is reduced quality, variety, and desirability of diet but no indication of reduced food intake. In Very Low Food Security households, there are disrupted eating patterns and periods of reduced food intake. In Very Low Food Security households, families worry that food will run out or not last long, are unable to afford healthy food, skip meals or cut portions, are hungry but do not always eat, and/or do not eat for a whole day.

Researchers are able to track food security data county by county in the United States. Data from 2010 shows that the highest percentage of food insecure households—and therefore hungry children—is found in Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, Oregon, and the District of Columbia. The problem of access to food has been further challenged in recent years by household foreclosures and loss of one or more household members’ jobs. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, it is estimated that “nearly 5.5 million children live in families that have lost their homes to foreclosures and 8 million children live in families where at least one parent has lost a job.”

Effects of Hunger on Children

Not long ago, a two-year-old boy received care in Boston. He was hungry, not just that night but during every day of his short life. He was smaller than average for his age; and all of his organs, including his brain, were not fully developed. Doctors at Boston Medical Center’s Grow Clinic diagnose such children as having a “failure to thrive.” The sad thing, said one of the doctors, is that parents are working. “They are earning money [but] their dollars just don’t go far enough.”

Research about child development has found that health problems during childhood can keep children from school attendance and other activities. They are unable to participate fully in life. In addition, food scarcity has been found to affect a child’s brain structure and therefore his or her ability to learn and interact with others.

The effects on children’s health may also have long-term consequences. A study conducted by the National Cancer Institute and the University of Calgary focused on the long-term effects of hunger in children. Children who went hungry even once were found to be two and a half times more likely to have poor overall health up to 10 to 15 years later. “Our research shows that hunger and food insecurity are really damaging in terms of children’s life chances,” reports one of the scientists involved in the study.

Programs That Help

The good news is that there are already resources in place to address this crisis. The USDA, through its Nutrition Assistance Programs, makes food accessible to hungry people. Food stamps; aid to children and pregnant women through Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); National School Lunch Program; Commodity Supplemental Food Program; and the Summer Food Service Program are all examples of government programs aimed toward getting food to people who need it. The bad news is that not all families who are eligible for such programs participate. For example, the USDA reported that three in ten people eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program do not apply for the program. The other bad news is that these government programs are under the threat of budgetary cuts. A proposed House budget in 2012 would have cut WIC programs for up to 350,000 WIC recipients and $50 million, or one fifth, of the Emergency Food Assistance Program that provides food to food banks across the nation.

In addition to government programs, nonprofits, faith-based, and community programs take up the slack in distributing food and educating families about food resources available to them. Feeding America, the largest hunger charity in the country, runs 200 food banks and offers advocacy and interpretative efforts. The Campaign to End Childhood Hunger provides coordination between anti-hunger networks, program administrators, and policy makers. Among its strategies to make a difference are efforts to educate the public, promote government and private sector response, and strengthen local coalitions.

According to a report from the news archives of The United Methodist Church, “The United Methodist Church is building an army against hunger.” The Society of St. Andrew, a nondenominational hunger relief group heavily supported by United Methodists, sponsors a program called Harvest of Hope that sends volunteers into harvest fields to glean what is left over. Each year the program gleans up to 17 million pounds of food from farm fields that otherwise would have gone to waste.

Over the last few years, the issue of childhood hunger has received the attention of both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama has dedicated herself to helping our children grow up healthy and reversing the alarming childhood obesity trend. On December 12, 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. On that occasion he said, “All children should have the basic nutrition they need to learn and grow and to pursue their dreams.”

Options for Response

When faced with such an overwhelming problem, so often we want to sigh and accept the fact that there is probably little we can do. We can, however, make a difference in ways both big and small. The differences we can make begin at our own tables and our own eating habits.

Americans waste 40 to 50 percent of the food we produce. Timothy Jones, a researcher with the University of Arizona, has spent the last ten years studying food waste. Using archaeological methods to examine landfills, Jones was able to determine the path food takes from farms to landfills as well as the culture behind the waste. He was able to determine the percentage of the food produced that is wasted. We can begin to address child hunger by asking how much food we have wasted this week.

Although many of us grew up with the adage to “eat your lima beans because many children in the world are starving,” we can now act effectively to get wasted food to hungry mouths. The USDA has a website with ideas for actions that faith communities can do to make a difference. For example, a church building can become a host site for afterschool and summer feeding programs. Educate others in your congregation about the government programs available. Learn to eat healthy and share that information with others. Volunteer and encourage others to volunteer with organizations like Harvest of Hope. Hold a Great American Bake Sale to feed the children who depend on you in your community.

What Our Faith Says

In John 6, we learn that Jesus cared about people who were hungry. He fed 5,000 people with two fish and five small loaves of bread. We can learn from his example. As we hear the statistics about the numbers of children who go to bed hungry at night, we can look at what resources we have and determine how we might use them to make a difference.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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