Meal programs and food banks chip away at US child hunger

Signs of malnutrition in children under the age of 5 declined by 36% between 2001 and 2012, and meal programs are reaching more people in need.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Arcadia Elementary School students eat lunch in November 2016 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Several families in the Kalamazoo Public Schools participate in the National School Lunch Program, which offers free or discounted lunches for low-income students.

The team at the Capital Area Food Bank, which serves Washington, D.C., and the surrounding region, knows full well the importance of addressing the issue of food insecurity.

Of the 32 million meals the food bank distributed in the last fiscal year, it reports that at least 2.8 million went to children, with some 131,000 youth served. That outreach is crucial, because when it comes to children, hunger and malnutrition can take a toll on growth, development, and academic success. 

“It really makes it difficult for children to learn and focus, and develop in all the ways that we want children to,” says communications director Hilary Salmon. “[It] doesn’t set a child up for success.” 

While experts still view food insecurity and hunger among children in the United States as a serious problem, there has been progress. A newly released report issued by the international humanitarian organization Save the Children found some declines in chronic malnutrition during the past 18 years, with particularly pronounced reductions between 2001 and 2012.

“It has actually improved enormously,” says Billy Shore, founder and executive chair of the nonprofit Share Our Strength. Started in 1984, the organization works for an end to childhood hunger, and is responsible for the No Kid Hungry campaign.

Mr. Shore has seen remarkable progress in addressing hunger in just the past decade, as he says more than 3 million children were added to federal programming providing breakfast in schools.

“These programs have existed for some time,” he says. “They have just been underutilized.” 

According to Nikki Gillette, lead report researcher for the Save the Children study, between 2001 and 2012 there was a 36% reduction in the number of U.S. children under age 5 with stunted growth, a measure of malnutrition. 

Ms. Gillette encourages caution, however, as some United Nations data indicate increases in stunting as recently as 2016. 

And there is consensus that more work remains to be done, with common estimates indicating that 1 in every 6 children in America still faces hunger today. 

“They live in families with all of the stresses of food insecurity, [and] that just creates so many other problems,” says Mr. Shore. “We still have a long way to go, but among all the problems we face in this country, it is certainly the most solvable.”

He acknowledges that there are ample programs that focus on feeding children. But it’s a simultaneous dearth of solutions for the underlying problems that cause hunger – poverty being key – and that continue to stifle further advancement. So even in the midst of economic growth, some children are left behind.

“Unless we deal with some of the structural reasons the economy is not reaching people,” he says, “we are going to continue to have a cohort of American families that are struggling and not able to support their kids. That inequality gap is widening, even as the economy grows.” 

There also remain practical challenges: While school-based breakfast and lunch programming has come a long way – serving some 22 million children across the country – there are critical gaps.

“What happens to those kids on the weekends? What happens to those kids in the summer?” Mr. Shore asks. “We don’t have the school infrastructure to feed them.” 

But Ms. Gillette says grassroots meal programs can work. By “better understanding variations in local need,” she wrote in an email, “communities can then develop more targeted strategies to reach children and families struggling with hunger.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly state the number of youth served by the Capital Area Food Bank. 

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