Few things are more fundamentally disturbing than hearing your child cry because he or she is hungry. Yet statewide, parents in nearly one in four households with children listen to those heart-wrenching cries on a more than occasional basis. Doctors say for young children, the grip of chronic hunger is both immediate and long-term.
Although governmental agencies, school nutritionists, social workers, food cupboards and backpack program volunteers are scrambling to help put food into mouths, the outlook is bleak. Severe cuts by Congress to the Farm Bill's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) threaten the most food-insecure households across the nation and in our own backyard.
According to figures released by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) in September, one in four New York households with children — more than 23 percent — reported there were times when they did not consistently have enough money to buy food that they needed for themselves or their family.
Another report on food insecurity released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service in September showed that one in eight of all households statewide struggled with hunger between 2010 and 2012.
Among the 13.2 percent of New York households considered to be food insecure during that period, 5 percent were classified as having "very low food security." These households had more severe problems, experiencing deeper hunger and cutting back or skipping meals on a more frequent basis for both adults and children.
Pamela and her three young children are no strangers to difficult times. The Ontario County residents have desperately needed the services of the Victor-Farmington Food Cupboard, and can't imagine what they would have done without it.
"There are truly no words to describe the feelings you get when you are starving and someone feeds you," said Pamela, "or when your soul is lost and someone shows the compassion and understanding you are really looking for and so desperately need. The truth is that the food cupboard people dont just hand out food and send you on your way. They feed more than just your stomachs — they feed you friendship, love, understanding, and a sense of belonging. My family would have never made it through all those hard times if all these wonderful people had not been there for us."
Victor-Farmington Food Cupboard President Dawn Rockefeller said the numbers of households in need is on the rise — most likely triggered with recent cuts in government assistance.
"Childhood hunger is huge," said Rockefeller. "People don't think it happens in Victor, and it does. It could be a household where somebody is sick. It could be a single-parent family. It could be because of the loss of a job. It's pretty big in our area."
SNAP: where it stands
Page 2 of 6 - For Pamela and others like her, the local food cupboard is just one chapter in their hunger story. Many also count on benefits from SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
But as of Nov. 1, the 2009 Recovery Act's temporary boost in SNAP benefits has ended, which means significant benefit cuts for more than 23 million households, or nearly 48 million SNAP recipients across the nation — 87 percent of whom live in households with children, seniors or people with disabilities.
Statewide, an estimated 3,185,000 SNAP recipients — or 16 percent of New York's population — will ultimately lose $332 million in SNAP benefits by the end of the fiscal year in September 2014, according to statistics provided by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Stacy Dean, vice president for Food Assistance Policy at the Center, said nearly 48 million Americans — including 22 million children — are experiencing a reduction in SNAP assistance, with the maximum monthly benefit for a family now reduced by $36 per month.
"The coming benefit cut will reduce SNAP benefits for all households by 7 percent on average, or about $9 per person per month," she said. "Without the Recovery Act's boost, SNAP benefits in fiscal year 2014 will average less than $1.40 per person per meal."
SNAP is facing even deeper cuts as Congress debates the future of the program. Both the House and Senate have passed legislation to cut SNAP, and a House-Senate conference committee is currently working to iron out a final bill.
The Senate bill would cut SNAP by $4 billion over 10 years, while the House bill is more severe — cutting SNAP by nearly $40 billion, providing strong financial incentives for states to reduce their caseloads, and eliminating assistance for some of the poorest Americans.
Ultimately, the House bill would eliminate benefits to about 3.8 million people in 2014 and an average of 3 million people each year over the coming decade, Dean said. The proposed cuts would hit poor households while unemployment remains above 7 percent and the economy struggles to create enough jobs for those who want to and are able to work, she said.
In light of SNAP cuts, Governor Andrew Cuomo has encouraged New Yorkers to make a donation to one of the state's eight regional food banks, which help to feed people who are struggling to afford healthy meals.
"New York's food banks serve a variety of vulnerable populations across the state — many of whom have already been impacted by federal SNAP reductions," said Cuomo in early November. "By purchasing a few extra items to donate when grocery shopping, we can all do our part to put food on the table of those in need this holiday season."
In Ontario County, Social Services Head Social Welfare Examiner Andrea McGraw said the need for SNAP continues to rise as it has over the last few years. This year alone, 2,408 children between the ages of 5 and 18 received SNAP benefits.
Page 3 of 6 - "I think people need to understand that childhood hunger does exist," said McGraw. "We hope that it's not as widespread as it is in other areas, but people are struggling. And we can't help everybody we'd like to. We have to be responsible."
She said the county serves many who are low-income, long-term recipients, and emphasizes that most are people who already have employment.
"Anyone who's receiving SNAP is earning income through a job, but is having a hard time making ends meet," she said. "They're working, but not earning enough, or they're on Social Security or disability or Supplemental Security Income (SSI)."
Impact of childhood hunger
Dr. Jeff Kaczorowski is a children's health advocate both on and off the job. The associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center is also a practicing pediatrician. In his off hours he heads up The Children's Agenda, an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that aims to improve the health, education and success of children and youth through advocacy for evidence-based solutions and policy change.
"We believe it's the responsibility of everyone to meet the needs of kids," said Kaczorowski. "Kids are the poorest segment of our population."
For Kaczorowski and his team at The Children's Agenda, it comes down to a very fundamental issue: a child's basic need for nutrition.
"Children are particularly vulnerable to the impact of hunger," said Kaczorowski. "They're in critical stages of development. If babies' brains don't get enough nutrition, the impact of that can be longstanding. It's not just day to day; it can have life-long impact."
There's tremendous evidence that about 90 percent of brain growth happens before children enter kindergarten, Kaczorowski said.
Once in school, it's very difficult for children who are hungry to exercise because they don't have the energy or calories to burn, Kaczorowski said. And it's very difficult for them to concentrate in school — they don't have the necessary energy or brain power to focus.
"These impacts hurt them day to day and in the long term," said Kaczorowski, "and yet here we are, cutting SNAP benefits."
It can be a very difficult choice for parents, said Kaczorowski. Some of the cheaper, easier-to-access foods are less nutritious, but the higher fat content will stave off hunger for a longer period of time. And some of the healthier foods are not as satisfying — hunger pangs will return much sooner.
"There's nothing more fundamentally unsettling than hearing your child cry because they're hungry," said Kaczorowski. "Maybe they'll feel less hungry and you'll feel less terrible about their hunger if they have a donut instead of carrots."
Providing for kids in school
Page 4 of 6 - At Marcus Whitman Central School, Food Service Manager Carla Woolston said about 49 percent of students receive assistance. Typically, she tracks families who have received assistance in the past and contacts those who do not have current paperwork on file.
"The district tries to do everything in their power to prevent families from falling through the cracks and missing the opportunity for assistance," Woolston said.
Lynn Pierce-Morey has spent the last 14 years as a certified school social worker serving grades K-6 in the Canandaigua school district, which has a 25 percent free and reduced lunch population. Experience has taught her that there are always students in need, but the prevalence of hunger in children locally often mirrors the state of the nation's economic situation.
Pierce-Morey said there's also a stigma still associated with families not being able to provide their children with food and that it's only after thorough investigation or observation that students will end up receiving assistance.
While those students are not identifiable to staff or other students — for some, the anonymity is not enough — they're still reluctant to accept a helping hand, she said.
"Students who are hungry don't always let staff or school personnel know they are hungry," said Pierce-Morey.
Woolston said she believes that children who are well-nourished enjoy heightened cognitive abilities, visit the nurse's office less often, and display improved behavior overall. She offers low-fat milk, fresh fruit and vegetables every day at Marcus Whitman — locally grown when possible. Why? Because hungry children cannot learn, she said.
In Canandaigua schools, a breakfast and lunch program is available for students and research is also being done to investigate ways the community can support students over weekend or non-school days.
"Teachers will often fill the 'snack-time' gap from their own personal supply," said Pierce-Morey. "The Parent Teacher Student Association puts together snack bags for the social workers at the primary and elementary schools that get dispersed for our most needy students. And parents will often send in extra classroom snacks that teachers also access for students who are hungry."
The Canandaigua School District has social workers, prevention specialists and family service facilitators who make referrals to the food cupboards, soup kitchens, and other agencies to assist families in securing what they need, Pierce-Morey said. These professionals also have some community connections that assist in filling some immediate gaps while families are in crisis.
Experience has taught Pierce-Morey that hunger has always been an issue for some — a greater issue at times and a lesser issue at other times. But the need is constant for the community to support its families, and particularly its children, "who spend much of their time either hungry or concerned about their next lunch or dinner."
Page 5 of 6 - "There are so many variables in a student's success that hunger itself is tough to identify as the cause for any particular concern," said Pierce-Morey. "Lack of resources overall presents many factors that influence student's health, well-being and ability to succeed. We hope and work toward hunger being a temporary concern for a family."
Students serving students
At Victor High School, a student-created, student-led spinoff of the national Feeding America BackPack Program program has grown by leaps and bounds over the last seven years.
Victor High School teacher Beth Thomas invited Victor-Farmington Food Cupboard President Dawn Rockefeller to speak to her leadership classes. One of her students at the time, Zach Barry (whose family owned Leonardo's Pizzeria), took on the challenge to create a unique backpack program, the Victor Snackpack Program.
"They created a plan, presented to the Board of Education, partnered with the food cupboard, advertised the offer, and eventually had about 50 homes to deliver food to each long weekend and school holiday," said Thomas.
Eighty-six Victor and Farmington households with 215 children were served on Columbus Day weekend, and 102 households with 236 children were served on Veterans Day weekend. Students will also deliver snackpacks over Thanksgiving and December holiday recesses. Thomas and fellow teacher Joe Carey are advisors for this perennial, student-driven effort.
"It's hard to think of our classmates going to bed hungry," said senior Kristin Gilbert. "I joined leadership class because what we do to help others leaves a feeling that is unexplainable. The gratification that comes after helping people is such a great feeling."
Thomas offered her students extra credit in leadership class if they brought in jars of peanut butter. The Victor-Farmington Food Cupboard supplied a substantial amount of the food as well. The cupboard is in turn supplied by Foodlink.
Thomas said she has received emails from four families this fall to say things are turning around for them and they no longer need the food.
"One family had been receiving food for four years and gushed her gratitude for 'helping the family through a rough time,'" Thomas said. "I have had another recipient cry when I have delivered a bag of food, but our mission is to keep the deliveries anonymous and face-to-face contact is rare."
A solvable problem
Kaczorowski at URMC says feeding children is of the utmost importance, and it can be done.
"You'd better take care of the fundamental needs of kids — hunger and food — before you take on some of their other challenges," said Kaczorowski. "If kids' needs of safety and nutrition are not being met, anything else you're trying to do to help them be academically or economically successful is not going to work."
Page 6 of 6 - There's no shortage of hungry children in Kaczorowski's world. He serves the ones he can see, but knows there are so many more he can't see. And those are the children who worry him most.
"These problems seem very difficult to talk about, and they seem intractable in some ways — but they are absolutely not," said Kaczorowski. "We know the answers to some of these problems: programs like the WIC program, like Foodlink, like SNAP. This is fundamentally a solvable problem, but it's about the choices we make as a society.
"We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world — we should be able to solve this, and we should start with kids."