EDITORIAL: Why do kids go hungry?

PRESS RELEASES AREN’T SUPPOSED to make you angry. Uncontroversial community news this time of year announces pancake breakfasts, strawberry festivals, barbecues and the reappearance of farmers’ markets. It might cause your mouth water but not set your blood boiling.

But there it is this week, a press release asking for donations of food to help supply local volunteer pantries so they have enough to meet the need this summer. This one is a joint effort by the Whittier ElderAct Club, which is sponsored by the Rotary Club of Philmont, and the Columbia Opportunities, Inc. Emergency Food Pantry. It runs until the end of the month. Donations can be left with the receptionist at the Whittier Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center off Route 66 in Ghent. But wait, didn’t people give generously during the last holiday season? Isn’t the economy recovering? Who benefits from this drive, anyway? Good questions, and the list of items requested offers some answers, because the drive is seeking canned tuna and mayonnaise, peanut butter and jelly, soup and crackers, canned peaches, pears, fruit cocktail, pineapple or applesauce in cans or plastic jars, 100% fruit juice in cans or individual boxes, breakfast cereals, instant oatmeal, pancake mix and syrup. All types of people eat these things, but they are simple foods–the type that kids will eat. Hungry kids.

Two out of every five kids in Columbia County are eligible for federally funded free or reduced meals through local schools. That’s a lot of children who, except for school breakfast and lunch programs, might not always have a reliable source of nutritious food every weekday. But in less than two weeks schools will close for summer vacation, and families already unable to make ends meet will have the extra expense of breakfast and lunch for kids who were getting those meals at school or at Head Start. How will those kids spend their summer vacation? Looking for something to eat?

Government programs try to fill the gaps, but they don’t meet the need. Often local food pantries run out of some basic supplies, especially toward the end of the month. We may think of government help as the social safety net, but children slip through it all the time into a condition called “food insecurity” if not outright hunger. Definitions of food insecurity vary–the U.S. Department of Agriculture prefers the categories “low-” and “very low food security”–but the basic idea is that the family doesn’t always know where the next meal will come from; and some mealtimes there’s almost nothing at all to eat. It’s not a isolated problem. By one estimate, in 2011 (the latest figures available), 16.7 million children in the U.S. lived in food insecure households. This is not just needlessly cruel. It’s stupid.

We pay a high price for public education because it makes kids better citizens under the assumption that children who can read and write and do math are more likely to get jobs and pay taxes when they grow up. Politicians and editorial writers constantly refer to education as an investment in our future. But data confirm that undernourished kids have more academic difficulties and are at higher risk for developmental problems. If we adults are so smart, how come we don’t have a government that effectively protects our investment in the future? Is it really possible we are incapable of figuring out how to feed all our children?

Some folks reject the notion that government can or should try to solve society’s problems. If people have less, maybe they made bad decisions. Those hit by bad luck can turn to private charity. So where does that leave hungry children? For them, food insecurity is an accident of birth, not a choice. Hunger, or the threat of it, is their bad luck and private charity alone cannot meet their needs. Our failure to create an effective system of universal food security for children causes suffering and waste. And for what?

Please support the summer food drive of the ElderAct Club and Columbia Opportunities at Whittier in Ghent. Bring what you’re able, but remember that it’s not enough. Make copies of a receipt for something you bought. Write notes on the copies and send them to Congressman Chris Gibson, Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and to President Obama. Tell them you believe that the leaders of a great nation would not let any child in Columbia County face hunger this summer.

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