'Tis the season for national gluttony, and a good time for a reality check.
As a country increasingly enamored of food, it's morally unacceptable that we tolerate growing numbers of hungry children. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released a state-by-state report on national "food insecurity," a curious term that more or less means hunger or susceptibility to it. The picture it paints is depressing.
We're talking real hunger, not the tummy rumbles most of us experience between meals. The sort of hunger where people worry if they or their children will eat that day, or if what they can afford will be adequate.
More than 50 million Americans fit this profile, including more than 17 million children. Food insecurity is a fact of life in nearly 15 percent of all households. The rates, thankfully, held fairly steady during the last year measured despite the recession, but they remain at their highest level since the government began compiling them in 1995.
How has this been allowed to happen? How is it that in a nation so bountiful, one in four children is at risk of being hungry? Viewed through the prism of food, we Americans are a confused, sorry lot. One-third of adults are obese. Treatment centers are filled with young people who binge and purge in response to distorted perceptions about their own bodies. And a good proportion of us (myself included) are renewing our subscriptions to Food & Wine, tuning in the latest episode of "Top Chef." And yet the deplorable problem of child hunger remains largely hidden amid these obsessions. And this isn't a social condition that will be solved by the numerous and well-intentioned food baskets delivered this time of year. Tiny Tim gets hungry on a broader calendar.
The USDA report, "Household Food Security in the United States, 2009," describes food insecurity as "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways." Ask a teacher. This can mean children stealing to calm their growling stomachs. We're not talking about a kid lifting a candy bar on a dare, or sneaking a pint of milk under his coat for the sake of sheer delinquency. We're talking about kids who are hungry.
The report chronicles the range of need state by state using answers to survey questions. Respondents were asked questions such as, "In the last 12 months did any of the children ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food?" or to what extent they agreed with statements such as, "We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more." What is to be done? Reaching the children through public schools is one solution.
Congress can do its part by passing the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which would expand reimbursement for programs that enable more school kids get a meal, not simply a snack, and includes measures to cut through the bureaucratic red tape getting in the way of putting more plates out at the school cafeteria. The act would increase nutritional standards for what we're feeding kids. Take that, sodium and sugar.
Passing the bill would help rectify this atrocious statistic: On a typical school day, more than 55 percent of children who qualify for free or reduced-price school breakfasts don't get one.
The usual concerns about expanding access to a government safety net don't apply here. Ensuring that a child is fed at school is not going to create welfare dependency. Feeding children helps them focus in the classroom, and that's essential if we expect all children to reach higher benchmarks. Later, as educated working adults, they'll more than repay taxpayers for the meals.
And, unlike some programs that aim to help people, this one cuts to a basic principle. Sustenance and nutrition are necessary for life. Think back to Maslow's hierarchy. All the little things that contribute to academic success fall by the wayside when a child can't concentrate because he or she didn't eat breakfast.
Advocates have wisely focused their messaging away from attempting to solve all the underlying causes of childhood hunger. Clearly, the poor and sometimes outright criminal choices of adults are involved. But while eradicating poverty may be overwhelming, doing more to feed the nation's children is not.
Tackling hunger will obviously cost money. And given the focus on the nation's deficits, this might not seem like a good time to call for increased spending on current programs. But I'd rather drive a bumpy stretch of highway than know a kid is hungry. Effective federal spending is a matter of prioritizing.
We're a country that wisely demands children must attend school until a certain age. And with No Child Left Behind, we've laid down some pretty tough expectations about performance. But it's doubtful we'll meet those goals until we also enact No Child Comes to Class Hungry.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.