Childhood Hunger

Sep 16, 2013

Last night I was eating dinner at a restaurant in Missoula and there were flyers on all the tables from the group No Kid Hungry letting people know that a portion of what they spent on dinner would go to services that help feed hungry children.

Before I go on, I better offer up my own disclaimer. I work for an agency that is part of a coalition working to end childhood hunger and as you might well imagine, there are no easy solutions to this problem.  There are millions of families who don’t have enough food.  The current phrase to describe this is food insecurity.

I am not a fan of the term.  It’s a euphemism and what’s more it sounds like a psychological problem.  I’m insecure about my looks, my age, oh and food.  Can’t we just say that there are millions of families in this country that don’t regularly have enough food?

In 2011 more than 16 and a half million children in this country did not have enough food to get the nutrition they need for their growing bodies and developing brains.  Sixteen and a half million kids! It is the same number as all the people who live in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Colorado combined.

Montana is not immune from this epidemic. Ninety thousand children under the age of 18 a full 20 percent of Montana children live in homes that regularly do not have enough food.

Being continually hungry has severe consequences for children.  As students, they get lower math and reading scores, they are more likely to have reduced language and motor skills and they are frequently absent because of illness.  These children are more likely to have to repeat a grade; they show signs of anxiety, aggression, and other behavior problems. All of these symptoms arise because they aren’t getting enough to eat.

Even if you aren’t swayed by the moral argument that no one, especially children, should have to be hungry, think of it from a practical point of view. We depend on our children to grow up healthy, to do well in school, so that they can become the next generation of teachers, welders, doctors, civic leaders, and yes home health care providers.  Today’s children will be taking care of us when we’re old. We can’t afford to turn our backs on the thousands of children in Montana and the millions of children in this country who simply aren’t getting enough to eat.

Childhood hunger has grown to such proportions that it cannot be solved by food pantries, local churches, and community food drives alone.  These locally-based programs do a great job and they are a necessary part of the solution, families would be devastated without them, but they are not sufficient to end childhood hunger. We need strong public policy to go along with community-based solutions.

If businesses do not pay enough for workers to make a living wage, the federal government needs to step in and do more to supplement family incomes when wages aren’t enough. Families need stronger unemployment insurance, low-income tax credits, and assistance for health care and child care. 
            It’s time to increase the monthly allocation for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  SNAP is the best way seniors, parents, children, and others get the nutrition they need. However, the maximum monthly allotment doesn’t allow families to have enough food for the whole month.  The monthly allotment for a person in Montana is $127.  That works out to about four dollars and twenty-five cents a day   May families are often a week or more short of food at the end of the month

If a family wants to stretch its budget, it’s much cheaper to buy processed food rather than fresh meat and produce.  You can eat fluorescent orange Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for much less than it takes to cook a meal. We should all take the challenge to eat on $4.25 per day for a week.  It might give us some new perspective on what it’s like for low-income families.

It’s time to take some action. We cannot be daunted by the enormity of the task. We can’t stand idly by while the number of hungry children continues to rise.  Here in Montana there are hard-working people who are taking on this challenge and they are sponsoring a conference on September 23 and 24 at MSU Bozeman titled, Build a Stronger Montana: End Childhood Hunger. This conference will highlight the best practices in local strategies and public policy as well as give you the opportunity to hear what others are doing in the state and around the country to combat childhood hunger.  Just Google Build A Stronger Montana and you’ll find more information. I hope you can attend.  This is Terry Kendrick, thanks for listening.