Child hunger in the United States is not like it is in poor countries.
Instead of the familiar television images of extended bellies and painfully frail arms, child hunger “very often means under-nutrition and very often it can coexist with obesity,” said Kimberly Perry, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions.
While child hunger in Washington, D.C. is not as visible as elsewhere, it is a problem that is estimated to affect 35,000 children here and a coalition of non-profit organizations called the Partnership to End Child Hunger in the nation’s capital has made it their goal to eliminate the problem in 10 years.
On April 18, Mayor Anthony A. Williams joined the leaders of D.C. Hunger Solutions, the Food Research and Action Center and Share Our Strength in announcing a strategy to provide three subsidized meals per day to as many as 20,000 eligible students.
The extension of the school meals plan to include a full dinner during after-school activities instead of a snack is part of a comprehensive 10-part plan make sure no child in D.C. ever has to skip a meal.
The plan also includes strategies for making parents and food providers aware of federal reimbursements that are available, lowers the criteria for eligibility to receive meals and promotes adding supermarkets in more neighborhoods.
And the plan doesn’t stop in the nation’s capital. According to Perry, the partnership’s long-term goal is to extend the 10-part plan to cities and states across the country.
“It can be done. It’s not rocket-science,” Perry said. “It’s just looking at what we have and how to use it better.”
D.C. has $14 million available in federal funding to help combat child hunger, but Perry said there have been challenges in translating that money into nourished children.
“Hunger has been one of those invisible issues that no one likes to talk about because they think it’s so large that no one could ever possibly wrap their arms around it,” she said. “And so it’s just sort of ignored.”
She said one a major reason that federal money has been underutilized in the past is a lack of advertising on the part of city officials, but that organizations like D.C. Hunger Solutions have been successful in the past few years in getting the word out.
Three years ago, Perry said, D.C. was only feeding meals to around 14,000 children during the summer out of the 35,000 who were eligible. In 2005, she said, that number was up to 27,000.
City officials have stepped up there efforts as well. Cynthia Bell, director of the Nutrition Services Program for the D.C. Sate Education Office, said marketing the meal programs has been one of her main initiatives.
“We actively disseminate information into the community so that school officials are aware of the programs they can participate in,” she said.
Just getting food to children is not the only issue however. Ironically, the same advocacy groups that deal with child hunger cite obesity as part of the same fundamental problem.
“If you have three dollars to feed your family, French fries and a hamburger at a local fast food joint might be more reasonable than going to the grocery store to buy a meal,” Perry said.
The nutritional value of the meals provided by the city is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but Perry said she would like to see the meals made healthier by using local produce.
She also pointed out the importance of healthy food for improving performance in schools. “Clearly kids can concentrate and listen better in school when their tummies aren’t hungry and they aren’t high on sugar,” Perry said.
The states that are considering adopting a similar plan for combating child hunger have not been named yet, but Patricia Nicklin, managing director of Share Our Strength said about 70 percent of children who are food insecure live in only 10 states and that talks have begun with advocacy groups in states where child hunger is concentrated.
Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said he is optimistic that the D.C. program can have similar results in New York City but that he faces a unique set of challenges there.
“I see this as a plan that would work here and would work virtually everywhere in the country,” he said, but expressed the kind of frustration with city officials that D.C. advocates seem to have overcome.
“Generally top people don’t understand poverty and certainly not the hunger issue,” he said.
Berg also cited the ideological debate over food stamps, which some oppose as a form of welfare, as an impediment to fighting child hunger.
The problem of child hunger also extends into more rural areas like Ohio where the Children’s Hunger Alliance has been making progress in much the same way D.C. has, according to the group’s chief operating officer, Diane A. Radigan.
She praised the D.C. program for doing an “excellent job of bringing together multiple partners throughout the city to help develop a very comprehensive plan,” and said the same is being implemented state-wide in Ohio.
“The work that’s being done by Share Our Strength and [the Food Research and Action Center] is very exemplary and wonderful,” she said.