WASHINGTON — Carolyn Duff, the nurse at A.C. Moore Elementary School in Columbia, S.C., doesn't need to follow news reports to know the nation is in economic crisis.
Duff told a Senate committee Monday that she sees signs of the financial distress every day in the kids she treats.
"More and more of the working poor are entering the ranks of unemployed, impoverished and homeless families," Duff testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Duff and other child-health experts said the recession is accelerating a disturbing trend in which more kids have early diabetes, hypertension and other health problems previously confined to adults.
"There is a significant economic crisis in the country today, and hunger is one of the first things we see in the wealthiest nation on earth," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.
Duff was one of four people who testified at the first of several hearings on reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act.
That law enables Congress to fund free and reduced-price school lunches and breakfasts, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and other assistance for needy families.
Lawmakers have spent $86.4 billion on the food subsidies since 2004, but funds are running out as more Americans lose their jobs and more households fall below federal poverty thresholds.
The federal poverty rate — a family of four earning $21,200 or less — rose from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 12.5 percent last year, and analysts anticipate a spike in figures this year. More than 37 million Americans live in poverty.
Even before President-elect Barack Obama takes office, Democratic congressional leaders are weighing a $100 billion economic stimulus package that would include $4.3 billion in emergency funding for school meals, WIC and related programs.
"What summons us here is our moral conscience, especially in a time of economic gravity," said Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat.
Duff, a school nurse for 12 years, was chosen to testify in part because she is a director of the National Association of School Nurses, but also because South Carolina is among the poorest states with a high rate of childhood poverty.
For the 55 percent of the 340 kids at the Rosewood neighborhood's A. C. Moore Elementary School who get free or reduced-price lunches — and 62.2 percent in all of the Richland 1 District — eating school meals is essential, Duff said.
"They're dependent on it, to tell you the truth," she said. "Most children who get free and reduced (price) meals do not eat those meals at home."
Mariana Chilton, a children's-nutrition researcher at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said the number of children under 6 who sometimes are forced to go hungry has doubled in recent years to 8 percent of all youngsters.
"Senators, if you see child nutrition and health-care reform as one and the same, you will protect our youngest citizens from the ravages of the recession," Chilton said.
President Lyndon Johnson signed the initial Child Nutrition Act, providing the first free school lunches, in 1966.
More than 17 million children get free or reduced-price lunches, while 8 million receive free or reduced-price breakfasts.
To qualify for free meals, a child's family must have a household income below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or under $27,560 for a family and less than $22,880 for a family of three.