Although the United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, millions of children in our nation are food insecure, meaning they are either currently hungry or nearing hunger. Children who are undernourished are at greater risk for serious health, social, and educational problems. Today, many public food-assistance programs and private organizations strive to meet the nutritional needs of vulnerable children, but more needs to be done to fight child hunger.
The Impact of Child Hunger
Child hunger affects many aspects of children’s lives, from physical and mental development to emotional well being. Below are some of the issues associated with childhood hunger.
Health Risks Associated with Undernourishment
Children from many poor families receive less than 70 percent of the recommended daily intake of major nutrients. This deficiency translates into increased risk for serious and costly health problems, including anemia, impaired cognitive development, and stunted growth. Children suffering from hunger or near hunger are also less likely to have access to sufficient medical care.
Behavioral and Social Development
Food insufficiency also hinders children’s social development. Studies show that child hunger may be linked to behavioral problems, delayed social development, anxiety, and other emotional problems.
For emotional, cognitive, and physical reasons, a hungry or undernourished child faces significant educational challenges. School attendance and academic performance both suffer due to student undernourishment. Food insufficiency—often caused by missed breakfast—diminishes a child’s ability to retain knowledge, concentrate, and develop language and math skills.
Policy Recommendations to Fight Child Hunger
Ending childhood hunger is an important battle. The challenges our children face today impact how well they’re able to achieve their full potential. Below are some of the ways we’re fighting to end hunger for America’s children:
Ensure that Children Have the Nutrition They Need at School
Children need nutrition to help them grow and learn. Established in 1946, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program were designed to help fill this need. These programs play critical roles in providing quality nutritious meals to millions of children every day for free or at a reduced cost. Children from families at or below 130 percent of the poverty level qualify for free meals, and children from families between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level qualify for meals at a reduced price. Unfortunately, many children from working poor families often cannot even afford the reduced rate.
While nearly 18 million children qualified for free or reduced-price meals in 2007, just over 8 million of these children participated in the School Breakfast Program. The old adage is true: breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially for children. Some schools do not offer the School Breakfast Program, and in others logistical barriers, such as bussing schedules, don’t allow enough time for children to eat breakfast before the school day begins. To reach more children, the level of reimbursement for the School Breakfast Program should be increased to encourage more schools to participate.
Expand Access to Quality Nutrition in the Summer
Food pantries, soup kitchens, and other charitable food assistance organizations report seeing an increased need for food assistance for children during summer months. While more than 18 million children participated in the free or reduced-cost school meal programs in 2007, only 3 million received daily assistance through the Summer Food Service Program. (SFSP) [LINK TO SFSP POLICY PAGE]. One of the largest barriers to serving more children in the summer is that there are not enough organizations willing to sponsor the program. The administrative and policy barriers to this program should be streamlined to encourage more agencies to participate, bringing meal service to more children in communities nationwide.
Improve Access to Nutrition Afterschool
For too many children, access to complete nutritious meals is limited to what children receive at school. This leaves evenings, weekends, and vacations where children may be lacking adequate nutrition. In 2007, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) provided congregate snacks and meals to over 3 million children and seniors in daycare homes, centers, and afterschool care. There are currently 8 states that receive meal reimbursement for service to children through the At-Risk Afterschool Snack portion of CACFP. In other states, afterschool programs, like Kids Cafes, are often serving complete meals to children, but only being reimbursed at the snack rate. Improvements can be made to reach more children outside of school hours by expanding the number of states that can serve meals to children in these “at-risk” areas.
Want to learn more about child hunger? Click the links below for more information on how children are affected by hunger and what we’re doing to help.
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