Your Voice Can Help Feed Hungry Children

by Diane Riley

CFBNJ Director of Advocacy

Hunger reached new heights during the economic downturn and unfortunately it remains stubbornly so.  Unfortunately children have not been immune to the effects of this trend.  Distressingly nearly 1 in 5 children in New Jersey are food insecure.  Meaning they do not have access to an adequate amount of food on a daily basis to lead a healthy life. What implications does this have for the future of our children? Although food insecurity is harmful to any individual, it can be particularly devastating among children. Not having enough of the right kinds of food at an early age can have serious implications for a child’s physical and mental health and therefore it threatens not only their academic achievement but the future economic prosperity they might be able to achieve as an adult. Most would agree that the health of the nation’s children is a priority.  For this reason it is vital to look at all the resources that can be brought to bear on the critical issue of childhood hunger.  One of the most essential resources we have to feed children is the federally-funded Child Nutrition Programs. The WIC (Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) program helps feed children from birth to age 5.  Once a child reaches school age, the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs help feed children while they are in school.  Afterschool and summer meals programs help feed many children when school is not in session.  Although these programs exist, not all children have access to them.  This fall the law that governs all of these programs will expire giving Congress a great opportunity to make vast improvements in the renewed law so that more children will be able to enjoy healthy food at home, at school and in the community, helping them to learn and grow.

Food pantries can help supplement a family’s food supply but they were never envisioned to be used in anything other than emergency situations.  Federal feeding programs are a major factor in our ability to keep people, especially children, fed.  In 1946, the critical link between childhood nutrition and healthy thriving adults was revealed when young men rejected in the World War II draft showed a connection between physical deficiencies and childhood malnutrition. In response, Congress enacted the 1946 National School Lunch Act as a “measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.”  Expanded over the years, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) now serves almost 31 million children daily, over 18 million of which receive their lunch free or at a reduced price. In 1975 the school breakfast program was added to assist schools in providing nutritious morning meals to the nation’s children. Today, additional federal programs provide critical funding for meals and snacks before and after school, and during the summer, when children are out of school but no less hungry. Unfortunately these programs do not match the participation of the NSLP.  For example, only 19 % of New Jersey children who receive free or reduced price lunch participate in summer food and less than 50% receive free and reduced price breakfast.

Improvements to these programs can translate into improvements in the number of children served through streamlined paperwork and alternative but proven models of meal delivery especially during the summer. Nutrition standards for meals will once again be scrutinized and building on the improvements made recently will be a priority.  While malnutrition today may not be the fear that spurs change, curbing childhood obesity has taken its place. The diet-related diseases children face at earlier and earlier ages will follow them into adulthood threatening their future and once again our national security.  Mission: Readiness a nonpartisan national security organization of over 500 retired admirals, generals, and other retired senior military leaders are calling for smart investments in America’s children. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack agrees, “This is not just a national security issue, it is also an education issue, an educational performance issue and a health issue. The reality of the fact that so many youngsters are not fit for military service is indeed a wake-up call for this country.” Advocates have a central role to play in seeing that these important programs are properly funded.  In the coming months our work will include educating and encouraging congress to take steps to ensure that every child has access to nutritious food throughout their growing years.