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Why does one in six U.S. kids go hungry?

December 14, 2007 | Page 16

ELIZABETH SCHULTE reports on studies showing that hunger is growing worse in the U.S.

ONE IN six children in the U.S. is at risk of living in hunger, according to the food bank network America's Second Harvest.

And as the need increases, so do the shortages--food pantries around the country report that they are unable to provide for all the people who ask for help. According to Second Harvest spokesperson Ross Fraser, the shortages at food banks were the worst in 26 years.

A report released in mid-November shows that there are kids in every state in the country living in "food insecure" households--meaning the families don't always know where they will find their next meal. This indicator of hunger was constant in both urban and rural areas.

In some states, however, the hunger statistics have shot through the roof. In Texas and New Mexico, more than 24 percent of children are in danger of going hungry. Hunger rates jumped to 20 percent or more in California, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah and the District of Columbia.

What else to read

The report released by America's Second Harvest, Child Food Insecurity in the United States: 2003-2005, can be downloaded as a pdf file. The network maintains a Web page with statistics on child hunger.

 

Some 15 million low-income children rely on free school lunches, and 7 million get free breakfasts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). "Last year, I was sitting with a first-grade boy as he was having breakfast," Sandra Valeri, food service director for Leominster, Mass., public schools, told the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. "I saw him wrapping up his muffin to put in his pocket. I asked him if he was saving it for recess, and he said, 'It's for my baby sister, because she doesn't have any food.'"

Another recent USDA report showed that 35.5 million, or 12 percent, of people in the U.S. were "food insecure" at some time during 2006, up from 35.1 million the year before--and this figure doesn't even include people who were homeless. Single mothers and their children were the most likely to face hunger.

While a larger number of kids live in what the USDA calls "food insecure" households, relatively few kids--less than 1 percent--are classified as having "very low food security," meaning they must eat less because their families can't afford to buy enough food.

The grim reason for this, explained John Weill, president of the hunger-relief advocacy group Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), is that in these households, the adults are the ones who skip meals--because "parents go to heroic lengths to protect their kids from hunger," Weill said.

The elderly typically make up a large portion of the growing population who live in danger of going hungry. Kevin McCullough from Chicago's Cathedral Shelter described the dangerous cycle in an interview.

"For seniors, medications are so expensive, and they have to buy their medications, and they have to take them with food," McCullough said. "If people aren't eating well, they get sicker, so they need more medication, so it's a spiral that happens with folks who aren't necessarily well to begin with."

Cathedral's food pantry serves about 9,000 people a year; about half of their clients are seniors. "Their income doesn't necessarily keep up with the expenses they have," McCullough said. The winter months are the hardest--he estimated that 10 to 20 percent more people are coming in on food distribution days.

While food pantries stretch to fill a growing gap, the federal government is heading in the other direction. One of the contentious issues in the farm bill being debated in the Senate is raising the raising emergency aid for food banks to $250 million a year. The amount has remained at a grossly inadequate $140 million since 2002.

Food stamps--the program that some 26 million people rely on for basic nutrition every month--is in dire need of an increase in funding to remain effective. "Cuts that Congress enacted in 1996 [with the Welfare Reform Act] are shrinking the value of food stamps more with each passing year, making it increasingly difficult for millions of poor families to afford a healthy diet," Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told Mother Jones. "Right now, food stamps average only about $1 per person per meal, well short of what these families need."

While this fact remains largely hidden, the impact of rising expenses is affecting a wider and wider part of the population. "As costs for food, energy and housing continue to rise, and wages stagnate or decline, households are finding themselves increasingly strapped," FRAC's Weill said.

Melanie Gosselin, executive director of the New Hampshire Food Bank, told the New York Times, "It's the price of oil, gas, rents and foreclosures." The demand for food donations grows while donations drop--and working-class people get squeezed in the middle. "This is not the old 'only the homeless are hungry,'" said Gosselin. "It's working people."

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