Fighting Hunger Gives Kids a Fighting Chance

This week’s blog post was written by Food Security & Nutrition Consultant Elizabeth Giovannetti Campbell.

September is Hunger Action Month, and fresh back from my maternity leave, I am working on a Breakfast in the Classroom project, which aims to eliminate barriers to breakfast service for low-income children. When deciding to go back to work, which was not an easy decision, I had to ask myself, “Am I doing something meaningful with the time that I spend away from my family?” Really examining this question brought me back to the day that I knew I needed to be an anti-hunger advocate.

It was a blistering hot summer day, and I was a young and enthusiastic, newly registered dietitian working for the Food Bank of Central New York. I was the only dietitian on staff at the time, so I wore many hats. I had spent the morning at an elementary school in an affluent neighborhood outside of Syracuse teaching kids in summer school. This wasn’t the kind of summer school you attended because you didn’t want to repeat 2nd grade; it was the kind that your parents paid for you to attend to give you an enriching summertime experience. I vividly remember a parent showing up at the door of the classroom to pick up her child early so the little girl wouldn’t miss her horseback riding class, which I thought was such a fun summer activity.

After the class, I schlepped my box of cooking supplies to my car and made the 15-minute drive into the city to set up a cooking demo at a fresh food distribution. The Fresh Foods program was a food rescue program where a food bank truck picked up fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and other perishable items at a local grocery store chain. Then the driver brought the food to a community center, where volunteers unloaded the truck, separated the food, and distributed it to folks so that it made its way into someone’s refrigerator that very same day. These food distributions were scheduled, and it was not uncommon for people to show up 2 to 3 hours before the food was delivered.

I arrived about 15 minutes before the distribution, and there was a line that wrapped around the corner. Parents, grandparents, men, women, and children were all holding their spots in line as the sun beat down on them. A city of Syracuse water department truck drove by the line and stopped in front of a fire hydrant. The employee opened the hydrant and water rushed out into the street and sidewalk. He smiled and yelled to the children to come cool off. The children ran to the water, and I remember smiling as they squealed and played with one another. And then it occurred to me, that they SHOULD be squealing and playing because it was SUMMER VACATTION and they were CHILDREN! Why on earth were they standing in line with their families waiting to receive food?  The children across town, who were about the same age as these children, had just finished a morning of cooking class, were headed off to equestrian lessons, and would very likely go to eat lunch – where they probably were able to choose what they wanted – with friends or family.

Both groups of children would some day compete for spots in colleges, jobs, and other opportunities. The children at the Fresh Foods distribution, who were not even 10 years old, were already considerably behind in terms of academic and enrichment opportunities than their peers from the more affluent neighborhood. Now I know many of you may think, “Well, that’s life.”  But, I say, “It doesn’t have to be.”  I remember thinking that day, “What can I do to help even the playing field?”  And for me, that was an easy question. I could help make sure that those children, and other children like them, could get something to eat in a way that didn’t make them feel different than their peers.

As I matured and grew at my job at the Food Bank of Central New York, thanks to wonderful colleagues and an incredible Executive Director, I learned a lot more about what I could actually do to even the playing field. The lowest hanging fruit (pun intended) was to help promote and strengthen the existing child nutrition programs—Summer Food Service, School Breakfast, School Lunch, and the After-School Supper Programs. Before I left the Food Bank of Central New York, the organization was working in various ways to promote, strengthen, and expand all of these programs. You see, if we are really going to end childhood hunger, it will take a strong public-private partnership. Promoting public policies and federal child nutrition programs and eliminating barriers to service to these programs is an investment in our country’s future that I am willing to make. Children who are well fed are more ready to learn and therefore more ready to become the best person they can be.

So, September is Hunger Action Month. What actions can you take to help reduce/eliminate hunger in your community?  Think about reaching out to your school food service director and ask how you can help promote the program. Does your school have Breakfast in the Classroom? Has your community taken advantage of the After School Supper Program?

I will continue to work on food security as I strive to achieve the delicate balance of work and family life. And, maybe, just maybe, my children will look back and think that I used my time away from them well. And maybe they will play on a mildly more even field.

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