Hungry children cannot thrive. Yet millions of kids in America are at risk of going hungry.
Hungry children are disadvantaged children. They can’t grow, develop and learn like other kids. They have trouble focusing and getting along. They complain often of headaches, stomachaches and other ailments. They fall behind in virtually every way.
Local business leaders were invited to explore the issue of childhood hunger and its impact on academic success Thursday night in downtown Jacksonville at an event organized by Second Harvest North Florida. Featured speakers were Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America, and Dr. John Cook, professor of pediatrics from Boston University and the author of Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on our Nation.
“This is an issue that will not go away,” Escarra told the crowd. “It will be with us for some time.”
According to Dr. Cook’s report, released by Feeding America in 2010, 20.8 percent of children in Florida are experiencing food insecurity. It reveals a 4.9 percent increase in Florida since 2008, which ranks the state as having the 10th highest rate of food insecurity in the United States for children under 18 years of age. That averages out to 1 in 5 children in Florida who do not have enough access to meet basic needs at all times. Nationally, 1 in 4 children are food insecure.
“There is no investment that has a higher rate of return than investing in children in the first five years of their lives,” Cook said.
Cook’s research shows that children who do not receive access to nutritious foods during their first five years suffer damage that affects brain development and subsequently their ability to learn. In 2008, statistics show that more than 16.6 million children were living in a state of food insecurity – nearly 23 percent of all people affected nationwide.
Nutritional deficiencies from lack of access to healthy foods also can lead to poor health, stunted growth, obesity and energy deficits.
Numerous programs exist currently to address these critical needs – including government sponsored assistance programs like free and reduced school meals, food stamps and summer feeding programs. Locally, Second Harvest North Florida has three unique programs dedicated to child nutrition – Kids Cafe, BackPack and Summer Feeding. All three programs make nutritious meals and snacks available to children from low-income homes where such resources might not otherwise be available.
Cook believes that expansion of these programs can begin to decrease the long-term effects of poor nutrition in children and their ability to learn.
“I believe very strongly that the time is right to end this problem,” Cook said. “We know how to end food insecurity and hunger, and we have the opportunity to do that now. We have solved far greater problems. Through our creativity and ingenuity, we have created the Internet and a huge complex of communication systems that are the envy of the world. We have the ability to solve this problem of food insecurity."
(PHOTO CAPTIONS: Top - Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America; Bottom - Dr. John Cook, professor of pediatrics at Boston University)