A Poignant Story About Kids and Hunger

by Bettina Elias Siegel on July 29, 2011

Last month on TLT’s Facebook page I shared a link to an eye-opening special report in Parents magazine about hunger in America.  I’d intended to write a full post about the article here, but other news items and ideas kept pushing it off the blog calendar and I started to feel that maybe it wasn’t timely anymore.

But yesterday I happened to see a tweet by Jeanne Ponessa Fratello, blogger at Jolly Tomato, linking to this story.  It’s about poverty-stricken kids in Philadelphia and the emotional scars inflicted when their parents forgo their own meals to be able to feed them:

I get yummy French toast, but when Mommy doesn’t eat, I say, ‘Please eat right now, Mommy,’ ” said Kodi-Cheree Moses, 5, of North Philadelphia. Her mother, Shontaya, 31, a security guard, has three other children, and food is scarce.

The same worries course through the streets of Frankford, where 7-year-old Marcus Gaines Jr. has his parents’ missed meals on his mind.

“When I eat and I see my mom and dad don’t, I say, ‘Why don’t you eat?’ ” he said. “It makes me feel nervous and kind of sad and stuff.

“I worry about them. I try to give them my chicken nuggets.”

Marcus Sr. gently turns down his son’s offers and tells him not to fret. “As long as you guys eat, we’re OK,” he said he tells the boy. “Me and Mommy will find something.”

Heartbreaking.

Moved by the Philly story, I went back and found the Parents magazine link.  In the article you’ll read about people who may be a lot like you — college-educated, living in the suburbs — who suddenly lost their financial footing in today’s bad economy and now struggle to feed their families every day.  You’ll also read about parents like those in the story cited above who forgo meals, leading to depression and irritability that in turn undermines the ability to parent well.

One sobering quote I just couldn’t get out of my head was from Dr. Mariana Chilton, Ph.D., an associate professor of public health at Drexel University and director of Witnesses to Hunger, who said:

This recession will be permanently inscribed in the bodies and the brains of children growing up today.

President Obama made a campaign pledge to end childhood hunger in America by 2015.  One significant victory in that battle was last year’s passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which, among other things, uses Medicaid data to directly certify children for free and reduced price meals; helps states improve the certification process for school meal aid; allows universal free meals for students in high poverty communities; and expands USDA authority to support meals served to at-risk children in after school programs.

But with one in four Americans living in food insecure households, clearly there is so much more to be done.  The Parents article offers excellent suggestions for ways individuals can help through monetary and food donations, as well as through political activism.  You can also always use the “Feed Hungry Kids” tab at the top of every Lunch Tray page to link directly to reputable organizations fighting to alleviate hunger in this country and around the world.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

mom of two July 29, 2011 at 8:22 am

That’s great that those already receiving government assistance fall under Obama’s plan, but what about those who don’t? We are one of those families my husband and I have forgone many meals the past 2 years just to make sure our kid’s eat this was very hard and I actually had to force myself to eat so I could make milk when my youngest was nursing. I know my oldest who is 5 is troubled when she doesn’t see me eat but if she offers me some of her food I’ll take a bite to comfort her. According to the government we make too much money to qualify for anything, yet we struggle to pay all of our bills on time and don’t even get me started of food whatever we have leftover from bills which is $20 or less for the week. We usually write a bad check. Thanks for bringing this to your readers attention cause it hits me directly

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 29, 2011 at 9:19 am

mom of two – I’m so sorry to hear that your family is struggling and that you sometimes have to miss meals to feed your children. As the Parents article points out, there are a lot of people like you who fall between the cracks by earning too much to qualify for assistance but not enough, especially with rising food prices, to meet their food needs. One 2008 study cited indicates that “21 percent of children going hungry lived in households with an income higher than the cutoff needed to get the reduced-price lunch and breakfast program at school,” and I’m sure that number has only gone up. I very much appreciate your willingness to share your story here, and hope that your situation improves soon.

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Tianna August 3, 2011 at 12:11 pm

My name is Tianna, I’m the mother of the little boy in this article. I would like to thank Ms. Siegel for writing about this story. To all readers, please keep your head up and believe in hope and change, it is coming for all one day. There will be a day when no one will go to bed hungry. Please keep all in your prayers, no matter what your beliefs are. We all are people. We may be different in color on the outside, but we all want the same things on the inside. Thank you for speaking out and telling your story. You are never alone.
Signing off,
Your friend in the fight for hunger to stop world wide. Be well.

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Bettina Elias Siegel August 3, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Tianna: Thank you very much for commenting here and for sharing your story at Philly.com. In doing so, you lent a human face to a serious problem – hunger in America – that for many people is an abstraction too easily forgotten. I hope that your family’s situation is improving, and please know that you and your son are in my thoughts. – Bettina

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Jeanne @JollyTomato July 29, 2011 at 9:41 am

Bettina, thanks for sharing this and for your thoughtful commentary. It’s a staggering problem, and the more we can shed light on it, the better chance we have of helping more kids and families.
Best,
Jeanne

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Melissa House July 29, 2011 at 10:31 am

I have been wanting to start a food pantry in schools. I wish it could be mandated. What you do is, get the school and outside organizations and community help to donate can goods and grooming supplies to the school. The school donates a small room (schools are full of them) and use it as a food pantry. Students who are poor bring a back pack and it get filled with goods to take home. None of their peer every know. I have read about it, and feel we need to all be doing that very thing that is working in many schools. For a great country as ours we do a poor job in feeding and medicating children. Children should never go without either.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 29, 2011 at 11:49 am

Melissa, along the lines of your great suggestion, be sure to read this interview I did with an amazing woman named Lisa Scarpinato, who sends poverty-stricken school kids home with backpacks of food to get them through the weekend.

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Barry July 29, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Hi,
Local foodbanks can play a big role in helping to fill the gap for food shortages. Our Arizona food bank works with major food stores, manufactures and distributors to reclaim and distribute tons of foods that otherwise would go to waste. They have teamed up with schools and offer a gleaning program, a backpack filled with food for the weekend as well as sponsored dinner meals during summer feeding programs.
Thank you for helping to keep us aware of news, events and information about these important situations.
Good Day~

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Amy Dunfee August 3, 2011 at 1:48 pm

You may also wanted to take a look at the work of Generous Hands.
http://www.generoushands.org/
They have an established weekend backpack program in southwest Michigan.

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Barry July 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Hello,
Food insecurity and food oasis’ are the current conditions that are starting to appear in more areas. In the past when we thought of hunger in children, we generally thought of third world countries and see the commercials to donate to them. In reality, their is a new generation of children that are going hungry. My work in school food service for 16 years has identified patterns for many years. Monday morning breakfast has the highest participation. Children were so hungry over the weekend from lack of or not enough food, the children would be waiting to come in to eat breakfast.
The backpack program for the weekend is a great way to help feed children and even families over the weekend. The St.Mary’s/Westside food bank in Arizona is one of the largest food bank operation across the U.S. They have also helped to get food banks set up in other cities to get programs started. Here is their link: http://www.firstfoodbank.org/help.html
“Hungry children can’t learn”
Good Day~

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Tina July 30, 2011 at 12:48 pm

This is sad, but what struck me most was the food the kids were eating – chicken nuggets and french toast? Fortunately I’m no longer in a position where I struggle and worry about food, but there was a point in my life where I was a single parent with little income. My son and I would both eat rice and beans rather than him eating chicken nuggets and me eating nothing.

It honestly doesn’t make a lot of sense to me why you would eat out at all if you have so little money for food…

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mom of two August 2, 2011 at 10:02 am

I’m going to defend the fact we don’t eat out. We don’t eat beans because my husband is allergic to them. If I cook with pasta I have to buy gluten free for me. Already that’s two really cheap staples out the door. I try my hardest to have nutritionally complete meals, but its really hard when the staples cost so much right now a $1 for one onion, seriously! I get sick every time I’m at the store because I know the prices have probably gone up. So you can see how appealing those cheap non-nutritionally items are, you can get bulk for your dollar even if its not healthy. I quit using fresh ingredients because they are too expensive even in the summer. Frozen veggies, white bread, canned soup, lunch meat, peanut butter, jelly, yogurt, milk, eggs and cereal are are staples now. I hate cooking now, cause I can’t afford to make something nice I have lost the will to be creative when I cook.

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Bettina Elias Siegel August 2, 2011 at 10:17 am

Mom of Two – if you don’t mind, I’d love to open this discussion to the whole TLT readership to see if readers have suggestions for you. You are of course free to ignore them but maybe some “crowd sourcing” is in order here! I’ll put up the post now.

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Bettina Elias Siegel August 2, 2011 at 10:40 am

Here is the link.

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Milehimama August 3, 2011 at 2:05 pm

I wish the food pantry idea was viable, but at least around here it’s not. I have a friend who, after finding out about 100 homeless children at her school, tried to start a program to send food home with those students on the weekend- fill up a backpack so they’d have something to eat when school was not in session. She was blocked at every turn by the schools and by privacy laws. And when she tried to get the youth group at her church involved, there were even MORE regulations and laws to comply with and the church wasn’t allowed to it either! (We’re talking about youth group making sandwiches and delivering it to people in ‘temporary housing’, here.)

Until those problems are solved, then helping through institutions (i.e., schools) won’t ever work.

BUT, YOU can still make a difference. When my husband was laid off a couple of years ago, and the food stamp office was on it’s 3rd month of having us “in process” (in violation of federal law, but they didn’t have the workers, so what are you gonna do?) some friends and acquaintances who knew of our situation brought us food but didn’t make us feel poor.

For example, one of them bought the HEB meal deal at the store and dropped it off at our house, saying it was such a good deal she bought one for her friends too. Other friends invited us over for dinner, or invited the kids over for a lunch play date. And that did make a difference.

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Milehimama August 3, 2011 at 2:10 pm

MomofTwo, wow it is really tough to make things stretch on a tight budget when you have special needs. My son can’t have certain foods, either.

On the plus side, rice is cheap and gluten free. So are corn tortillas. I’ve found produce is really cheap at ethnic markets if you can get to one. Mexican markets and the Asian market have good prices on staples- like onions for a quarter per pound vs. $1 per pound at the grocery store.

Your husband is allergic to beans- can he eat sprouts? Because you can sprout lentils, mung beans, etc and cook with them and it might be okay for him to eat. (Never ever sprout kidney beans though). Sproutings easy, you just have to plan ahead (NOT my strong suit, unfortunately.)

What about soy? Can he eat soy?

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mara August 4, 2011 at 9:43 am

thanks for posting this Bettina! I’m going to read the article – also thanks so much for these courageous parents for sharing their stories. Its eye opening to see just how many families struggle with this issue. There was just a new number published about how many households are on food stamps but we never seem to capture those families that are caught in between. Make too much for assistance but not enough to really provide for their families. I also want to look at the links and find a way to help. I think it would also be a great perspective gainer for my own kids who often feel like they don’t have all that their friends do – they aren’t seeing the other side of the equation.

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