1 In 6 American Kids Faces Daily Hunger, And This Has A Devastating Impact On Their Health And Education

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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If you think childhood hunger is something that only happens to “those people,” people in other countries, or just a certain slim pocket of unfortunate Americans, you are dead wrong. One in 6 kids faces hunger on a daily basis in this country.

That’s 13 million children with little or no food in the house. Thirteen million children who have to skip meals or scrape by with meager portion sizes. Thirteen million children experiencing hunger each day in a country that has enough food and resources to feed every single one of them. It’s unacceptable that we have not solved this problem yet.

The reality of childhood hunger is disturbing to consider. And yet, we all need to look this glaring problem right in the eye, and freaking do something about it.

That kind of change is just what an organization called No Kid Hungry is working toward. No Kid Hungry is a nonprofit group that advocates for hungry children. This past spring, No Kid Hungry partnered with the research firm Salter Mitchell to study children who experience hunger on a regular basis. They surveyed and interviewed these kids as well as their parents and teachers.

The report, just released this month, looked primarily at the effect that hunger had on the kids’ mental health and their life at school. Their conclusions? Hunger has a devastating impact on children’s mental health as well as their ability to have a decent shot at a good education.

This is heartbreaking.

Let’s start with the toll that hunger takes on the mental health of these kids. Of the children surveyed, 42% of them surveyed say that not having enough money for food makes them feel “sad” on a regular basis, and 41% describe their feelings about the situation making them feel “angry.”

“I feel like real hungry is different,” says Daishawn, age 15, as he described the cruel reality of facing hunger on a daily basis. “It’s like when your stomach growls. It’s like when your stomach is almost in pain for me. That’s what real hungry is.”

But it doesn’t stop there because the early years of a child’s life have a strong impact on their identity and mental health in the long-term. Even at young ages, the children surveyed describe their future as a bleak, depressing one, with 27% of children saying that they believe their experience of hunger in childhood will have a negative effect on their future prospects.

These are young children already feeling like their entire lives lack hope. Let that sink in.

Some might say, however, that all kids have an equal opportunity at a good future, no matter where they start. All you have to do is work hard, get a good education, and then you will have every opportunity to move up in this world, right? And sometimes, that might be true.

But low-income kids who face hunger are in a catch-22 because hunger in childhood has a significant negative influence on a child’s ability to get and receive a good education, as the report from No Kid Hungry points out.

According to the report, 59% of low-income kids come to school hungry, and most of the kids find that hunger inhibits their ability to concentrate and focus in school. Nearly half of kids say their school performance has suffered as a result, and 12% of the children say that hunger interferes with their ability to do their homework.

“My focus is different when I’m hungry,” says Don, age 16. “Of course I’m gonna be thinking about food. I’m gonna be thinking about which one of my classmates got food, I’m gonna be thinking about which one of them might share their food.”

Break. My. Heart. Right here, into millions of pieces. Something must be done. Not tomorrow. Today.

The No Kid Hungry report highlights the amazing teachers out there who are so concerned with the impact that hunger has on their students that they very often spend their own money on food for their students. Of teachers surveyed, 59% say that they make this a practice, spending an average of $35 a month (or $300 per year) to supply extra food for their hungry students.

But as awesome as this is (go teachers!), this is obviously not enough, and solving hunger is too big a job to expect teachers to fund from their own bank accounts. No Kid Hungry says that our biggest hope lies in the government programs set up in schools and communities that provide free or low-cost meals on a daily basis for our students.

“This underscores the vital importance of the federal nutrition programs (like school meals, SNAP, and WIC) in helping to ensure kids are able to get the daily nutrition they need even when times get tough,” No Kid Hungry tells Scary Mommy. “And as you know, when we make sure kids have consistent access to nutrition, they grow up smarter, healthier, and stronger, and that means a smarter, healthier, stronger nation.”

Amen. The research from No Kid Hungry shows that kids who receive free school meals report fewer headaches, stomach aches, and more of an ability to concentrate on schoolwork than kids who do not receive them.

However, says No Kid Hungry, these programs are not always as effective as they could be and could certainly use some expansion. The breakfast program that most schools offer, for example, is served before kids get to school, meaning that only a fraction of the kids actually benefit from it.

“When schools make breakfast part of the school day, serving it once school starts instead of before, it reaches more of the kids who need it,” reports No Kid Hungry. “This has a significant impact on test scores, attendance rates, discipline problems and the lives and future well-being of students.”

YES. These essential programs that feed hungry kids must be expanded and supported. It is especially urgent that we support these programs because we know that the current administration has its eye on slashing things like school meal programs and other assistance for our neediest families and kids.

This is unacceptable. Full stop.

If you feel so inclined, I urge you to contact your reps to tell them that slashing funds to programs like this has no place in U.S. politics. If you want to get involved further, No Kid Hungry has some ideas on their website for how to do your part to end childhood hunger as well as ways to donate toward the cause.

Most of all, we all need to be aware of the profound impact childhood hunger is having on so many of our children and their futures, and realize that in the end, this is an issue that should concern us all. No child should be worried about where their next meal comes from or have to go to school with an empty stomach.

We can do better than this, and we absolutely should. Right now.

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