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.
SNAP: Where it stands
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 benefit, 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.
SNAP is facing even deeper cuts as Congress debates the future of the program. Both the House and Senate have passed legislation to cut billions from SNAP.
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, Gov. 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.
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. “More children than ever are living in poverty in the U.S. and subject to hunger. 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.
“What we don’t think about is when that child was 2 years old and hungry every day,” he said. “We would never stop trying to help subsequent growth, but the impact of hunger is both a long-term and short-term problem.”
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.
Students serving students
The Palmyra-Macedon Weekend Wellness Backpack Program addresses issues many in the community may not realize exist — that there are children who do not have enough to eat. The program’s coordinator at the Intermediate School, Darci Perrotta, said the program started because children were coming into school hungry.
“On Mondays we noticed that children were saying they didn’t eat over the weekend,” she said. “They couldn’t focus because their stomachs were empty.”
When children are hungry it impacts their learning, she added. The program offers healthy, nutritious foods packed up in backpacks and handed out to children on Friday. The food for over the weekend helps sustain them so when they can come into school on Monday they have a full belly, and are ready to learn, Perrotta said.
“Our goal is to ensure healthy eating for children over the weekend, so when they come to school on Monday they will be ready to learn and grow with their classmates,” she said.
The program is free, confidential, and offered at each school in the Pal-Mac School District.
Anyone interested in donating non-perishable foods may contact Vicki Blazey at the primary school at 597-3475; Perrotta at the Intermediate school at 986-4474; Rachael Sando at the middle school at 597-3450; and Kim Bush at the high school at 597-3420.
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.”
Kaczorowski believes that communities as well as parents are responsible for finding a solution.
“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 a 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.”