Op-ed: I Grew Up Hungry. Let’s Finally Commit to Feeding Our Children. | Civil Eats

Op-ed: I Grew Up Hungry. Let’s Finally Commit to Feeding Our Children.

a hungry child sits at a table with just a tiny amount of food looking a little bit haunted

As a child growing up in poverty, summers were complicated. While in some ways I looked forward to the vacation from school, the extended break without a reliable source of weekday meals brought with it an anxiety that many of my classmates never experienced: the dread of frequent hunger, and the panic of not knowing when or how I might eat again.

Hunger was a constant presence throughout my childhood. And there were many times when the free lunch I received at school was the only meal I would have that day.

I always easily qualified for free lunch. There was never even any question, as my family relied on public assistance for survival. And so, five days a week, I would stand in line at the cafeteria, and prepare myself for a daily ritual of shame.

The process varied by state, district, and school; we moved often and there was always red tape to get through. But every school would find a way to call attention to the fact that the kids receiving free lunches were different. Most of the time, that meant having to hand off special paper tickets in order to get your lunch. As a kid, I was certain they deliberately made these tickets as brightly colored as possible to make it impossible for anyone to miss, even from clear across the cafeteria. And at some schools, those of us who ate free lunch had to stand in a separate line or use a different color tray.

The loss of my dignity was a sacrifice I had to make if I wanted to eat. And I tried to stay focused on the end goal: a tray piled with food.

Throughout my childhood, my siblings and I often counted the days until the next round of food stamps arrived. As the month stretched on, the cupboards would grow increasingly bare. During the summer, with no school lunches to sustain us, we would survive on anything we could get from the food pantry or government surplus food giveaways and stretch those precious resources as long as we possibly could.

I’ve been out of school for many years and thankfully haven’t known extreme hunger in quite a while. But I can still physically feel the ghosts of those hunger pains. And over the last year, I’ve been tracking the huge rise in food insecurity, the struggles many school districts have faced to continue feeding low-income kids who aren’t in school, and the stark fact that, at the height of the pandemic, nearly 14 million households with children reported they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat.

Now, I am so thankful for the recent expansions and updates to several major food-related safety net programs—including an unprecedented initiative that could have a significant impact on childhood hunger until at least next summer—that might spare many vulnerable kids from the anxiety and suffering I came to know as a constant.

On April 26, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a first-of-its-kind program that will help low-income families, including more than 30 million children, ensure they have enough to eat this summer. It is among the initiatives funded by the American Rescue Plan and is the result of the expansion and continuation of Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) benefits, which have provided food support to needy families since March 2020.

The summer food program will work in a similar way as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): funds will be loaded onto an EBT card that can only be used to purchase approved foods. The average eligible family will receive around $375 per child to cover the 10-week summer period.

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This program alone will make a huge difference for kids who would likely otherwise go hungry. And it’s not the only important development related to food safety net programs.

In late April, the USDA approved the continuation of the “universal free lunch program” through June 2022. This means the federal government will extend waivers that reimburse schools and childcare facilities for the cost of providing free lunch to all of their students. Making the program universal eliminates the need for documentation and other red tape that can cause disruptions and delays in getting food to kids who need it.

For kids growing up in poverty like I did, the reprieve from the daily anguish of hunger and the worries of food insecurity could be life-changing. Ensuring kids have the nutritional resources and support they need to survive and thrive helps them to grow healthy and strong, physically and mentally.

Hunger makes it difficult to think about anything else. A hungry child cannot properly focus on schoolwork or other important tasks and may struggle to perform well academically or maintain productive interactions with peers and teachers. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), lack of sufficient healthy food can lead to a failure to thrive, meaning kids may not grow and reach major developmental milestones as the result of undernutrition. Hungry children are also significantly more likely to receive special education services, to have to repeat a grade in school, and to receive mental health counseling than children with more secure access to food. Finally, low-income children classified as “hungry” tend to show increased anxious, irritable, aggressive, and oppositional behavior when compared to their peers.

The APA also found that children in families without enough food often feel ashamed and embarrassed about their situation—and can also feel isolated, which is compounded by the fact that they may avoid inviting friends over because of the lack of food.

Research on the lifelong impact of childhood hunger has found links between going hungry as a child and a range of problems in adulthood, running the gamut from a higher tendency toward fighting and violence to poor overall health and even trust issues and chronic PTSD.

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It’s a ripple effect: By nourishing the development of healthy children, we enable the growth of strong, productive future adults and solid communities.

My long-term hope is that this year’s boost to our existing safety net will serve as a case study, and that lawmakers and other leaders will see that investing in safety net programs that eliminate childhood hunger can pay off for all of us.

Bobbi Dempsey is a freelance writer who specializes in topics related to poverty and income inequality. She is a reporting fellow at the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and an economic justice fellow at Community Change. Read more >

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  1. Roger Underhill
    There is a part here that is missing from many school lunch and free food programs. It is a lack of "sufficient healthy foods" is key. The sugar and fat-laden foods distributed in the free food programs create anxious, irritable, and aggressive children. So it is not only the lack of food but is also the food that is being distributed. Donut holes and cookies are not sufficient helathy foods!

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