Sarah is three years old. She and her six-year-old brother, Bryce, are inseparable except when it’s time for him to visit the summer food program that provides meals at a school near his Ohio home for children who otherwise would go hungry. Sarah’s too young to make the trip. One morning after Bryce had his fill of food for the day he made a detour before heading home. He walked to the trash cans and began rummaging through food others threw away. Winnie Brewer, the Food Services Supervisor in Marion City Schools, noticed the little boy and tapped him on the shoulder to ask why he was sifting through the garbage. “My little sister,” he explained. “She’s hungry.” Bringing her leftover food was the only way he knew to help.
“We run into a lot of situations where kids will come and say they have younger siblings at home,” Brewer says. “They always want to know if they can take something back.” After Brewer spoke with Bryce, staff members followed him home with a care package for little Sarah. This was a temporary solution to a huge problem Brewer worries about every day. “Until we see that child digging food out of a trash can, it doesn’t hit home,” Brewer says. “Once it does, you know you have to do something.”
Nearly 220,000 Ohio children under six are poor and young children of color are more likely to be poor. More than half (55.5 percent) of Black children, 40.3 percent of Hispanic, and 19.1 percent of White children under six in Ohio are poor; 21 percent of them live in families where at least one parent works full-time year-round; 47 percent have at least one parent working part of the year or part-time; and 32 percent have no employed parent. Nearly one in four Ohio children lacks consistent access to adequate food—that’s 653,410 Ohio children of all ages in every corner of the state. Nationally, 15.3 million children were food insecure in 2014. The majority live in families with one or more working adults—but are still unable to consistently afford enough food to keep the wolves of hunger from their door.
There is no excuse for any child in America to go hungry and malnourished in the richest nation on Earth. Yet child hunger is a widespread, urgent and shameful problem that cannot wait. We all have to do something—now. Bryce and Sarah (names were changed to protect their identities) are far from alone as shown in a new Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio searing report calling to end the childhood hunger many thousands of Ohio’s youngest children suffer every day. Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers suffering hunger and malnutrition face increased odds of negative health outcomes during their years of greatest brain development. Food insecure children under age five are:
- Nearly two times more likely to be in “fair or poor health”;
- Nearly two times more likely to experience developmental delays;
- Two times as likely to have behavioral problems;
- More than twice as likely to be hospitalized;
- Two and a half times more likely to have headaches, and
- Three times more likely to have stomach aches.
Food insecure children are more likely to be behind in social skills and reading performance in kindergarten. By elementary school they are four times more likely to need mental health counseling. Risks keep accumulating: malnutrition from childhood food insecurity has been linked to adult diseases including diabetes, hyperlipidemia and cardiovascular disease. The stress and anxiety of early childhood hunger also make it harder to learn skills that help later relationship development, school success and workplace productivity.
Babies born to food insecure mothers face tragic odds: they are more likely to be born pre-term and at low birthweight and to struggle with breastfeeding which contributes to increased infant mortality rates. Babies who survive are more likely to struggle with disabilities during childhood and adolescence and face higher risks of chronic disease as adults. School-age food supports of free and reduced price breakfast and lunch are critically important to the health and academic success of older children but young children should not be forced to suffer from lack of food. Not a single parent or grandparent would want our young children or grandchildren rummaging through trash cans seeking food for younger brothers and sisters.
It’s long past time for political leaders at every level and all of us to end child hunger. Mrs. Coretta Scott King once said, “I must remind you that starving a child is violence.” Continuing to condone the pain of hunger and malnutrition in America is unforgivable. Please demand our political leaders act right now.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.