It was 1984 and school breakfast programs were just starting in Iowa. As a new dietitian with the Midwest Dairy Council, I was sent out to experience a school breakfast program in Muscatine, Iowa. Taking my assignment seriously, I showed up at 7:00 a.m., dressed in my best business suit. When I walked into the kitchen to greet the staff, who were already hard at work, I immediately felt overdressed – my padded shoulders, pencil skirt, and bow-tied blouse made me want to shrink into a corner. Forging ahead, I mingled with the food service staff then joined the kids for breakfast in the cafeteria. I chose the 4th grade table because I thought they’d be easier to talk to than the younger kids.
Self-conscious as I bent down in my pencil skirt to squeeze into an empty seat, I found myself sitting next to a boy with the most enchanting brown eyes. Making conversation, I said, “Hi, I’m Molly. What’s your name?” He answered, “My name is Emanuel, but everyone calls me Manny.” Gaining confidence, I asked, “Manny, aren’t you glad it’s Friday?”
When Manny looked at me and said, “Lady, you wouldn’t be happy it’s Friday if you knew that lunch today will be the last meal you’ll have until Monday,” his eyes captured my heart. I couldn’t fathom a child going hungry all weekend, but as soon as I processed this truth, I urged him to tell me about what was going on at home. His parents were busy working from early morning to late evening, and there wasn’t food or money in the house for him to feed himself or his younger siblings. Manny gave me a gift that day: his big brown eyes opened my sheltered eyes to the harsh reality of childhood hunger. I shared his problem with the school nurse and principal who found resources to help Manny and his family. From that day forward, I’ve advocated for school meal programs that provide a safety net for hungry kids at the federal, state, and local level.
Adapted from a story told by Molly Pelzer, RD
Executive Vice President, Midwest Dairy Association
You might be thinking that Molly’s story about Manny depicts a problem that was solved 30 years ago – today’s problem is about overfeeding our nation’s children and the resulting childhood obesity. But actually, child hunger is still a pressing issue. According to the USDA, 14.5% of Americans are food insecure. Unfortunately, food insecurity hits children more harshly than the general population.
On August 18, Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, released Hunger in America 2014, reporting that:
- 1 out of 7 people in the U.S., including 12 million children, rely on food banks and meal service programs to meet their basic needs for food
- A majority (89%) of the Feeding America client households with children are classified as food insecure
- Feeding America families face challenging trade-offs in paying for food or other basic needs, such as utilities (69%), transportation and medical care (67%), and housing (59%).
The people who make up these food-insecure households might surprise you – they are not a transient, uneducated, and unemployed population. A diverse group (43% white 26% black, and 20% Latino), the vast majority (93%) have a stable housing situation and 27% even own their homes. More than 40% have at least one family member with an education beyond high school. Most of these families are employed, but with wages below the poverty level.
The Deloitte 2013 No Kid Hungry Teachers Report similarly found that:
- 1 out of 5 American children struggle with hunger
- 3 out of 5 teachers say they teach kids who regularly come to school hungry.
Teachers see signs of hunger when their students are restless, disruptive, and struggle to perform basic academic tasks. Many school nurses keep a personal stash of granola bars and snacks to help kids who come to their offices with stomachaches and headaches, because they are hungry. Surprisingly, even overweight kids might struggle with food insecurity because they live in households where food is abundant one day and scarce the next. Their hunger drives them to overeat when food is available, which contributes to weight gain. The Hunger in America 2014 study revealed that one third of families wait until they have run out of food before turning to charitable food programs. Plus, 84% of food-bank households with kids cope by buying cheaper, unhealthy food to stretch their food budgets.
Federally subsidized school meal programs provide another important nutritional safety net for the children in Feeding America client households – most of them benefit from free- or reduced-price school lunch, while roughly half access free- or reduced-price school breakfast.
Kids like Manny have access to at least two meals every school day because of these school meal programs. Imagine the yearning Molly found in Manny’s big brown eyes and think about taking action to help solve the child hunger problem of today. What you can do:
- Join the 2 million volunteers who provide 8.4 million hours of help every year by volunteering at your local food bank.
- Make financial and/or food donations to food banks.
- Text “milk” to 227722 or visit www.milklife.com/give to donate milk to your local food bank. Milk is one of the most frequently requested – but scarce – foods supplied by food banks.
- Urge your legislative representatives to vote in support of federal nutrition programs.
- Advocate through your local school board to support the school meal programs in your district.