Hunger in America: The Invisible Hunger

Last week we sat down with Josh Wachs, Chief Strategy Officer at Share Our Strength, to talk about hunger in America. Josh shared important information about the No Kid Hungry campaign, as well as his thoughts on the importance of school  breakfast (and school meals in general), as well as strategies for bridging the food gap children experience during holiday breaks. We are huge fans of the work being done at Share Our Strength, and we encourage you to take the No Kid Hungry Pledge today.

Beyond Breakfast: Josh, introduce our readers to Share Our Strength, and the No Kid Hungry campaign.

I lead the program work of our No Kid Hungry campaign. The No Kid Hungry goal is to end childhood hunger in America. There is a true epidemic of childhood hunger in this country. The statistics, in many ways, are shocking. Sixteen million kids are at risk of hunger, according to the latest data from the USDA—that’s one in five kids. And yet we know we are a country of an abundance of food, food resources, and food programs. On one hand we have 16 million kids at risk of hunger, and on the other less than half of the kids eligible are actually getting a free or reduced-price school breakfast. Less than twenty percent of kids who are getting that free or reduced-price lunch during the school year are getting access to summer meals that are available to them.

Number one, Share Our Strength (and No Kid Hungry) connects kids in need with nutritious food; number two, we teach their families how to cook healthy, affordable meals. Our goal is to surround kids who are at-risk of hunger with healthy meals where they live, learn, and play.

A lot of our work is about connecting kids with effective nutrition programs like school breakfast, summer meals, and SNAP. This work is accomplished through the No Kid Hungry network—private citizens, public officials, non-profits, business leaders, and others, who provide innovative hunger solutions in their communities. These public/private partnerships work effectively to identify and eliminate the barriers that prevent kids from accessing nutrition resources. And through our Cooking Matters program we teach low-income kids, their families and caretakers, giving them the empowering skills they need to shop for, cook, and prepare healthy, nutritious meals on a limited budget. We help those families stretch the limited food dollars they have to get more nutritional bang for the buck—that’s a key component of ending childhood hunger.

BB: Can you talk a little bit about food insecurity vis-à-vis school meals?

We believe, and studies have shown, that school meals are a really effective tool in being helping to end childhood hunger and alleviate food insecurity. We just finished a study in Maryland where we found that in high-need schools, school breakfast is correlated with a 17 percent increase in math scores. Our belief is that it is absolutely crucial for kids to start their day with a nutritious breakfast; crucial to key, long-term societal impact. Breakfast and school meals are an education issue; we know that kids who don’t have breakfast go to the school nurse more often, they don’t have the same level of concentration, they don’t do as well in school. High school graduates are half as likely to go into poverty, so when we talk about hunger as an education issue it’s really about investing in kids now—investing in this country’s future. Making sure they get the solid nutrition they need, the long-term results they need, we see hunger and nutrition as an economic competitive issue for this country, as well.

The National School Lunch Program actually began in 1946 under President Truman, when the military went to the president and explained that they were having trouble finding recruits, young people, who have the proper nutrition to qualify for the military. The [NSLP] was developed out of that, so in many ways hunger and nutrition—in addition to being an education issue, and an economic competitiveness issue—is also a national security issue.

There has been a lot of attention on hunger and nutrition as a health issue; kids are sick more often, and with poor nutrition they also recover less quickly and they are hospitalized more often. The Center for American Progress recently released a study that said that hunger costs this country $167 billion per year in health care costs and lost economic productivity. At the same time we know that hunger and obesity are so connected, and we believe that school meals are an important solution to both hunger and obesity; getting proper nutrition at school is really important in making sure our kids grow up as healthy as possible.

In terms of school breakfast, every year we release a teacher’s report in which we survey 750 K-8 teachers from around the country in urban, suburban, and rural areas. This year over 60 percent of teachers said they had kids coming to school hungry. One of those teachers here in Washington, D.C.—who teaches in a school with over 95 percent free/reduced lunch—told us that, for so many of her kids, school meals were the only nutrition they got all day. In fact, she told us that Tuesdays and Wednesdays were the only days she could effectively teach because on Monday the kids are recovering from the [hunger of the] weekend, and on Thursday the anxiety and dread about the coming weekend [begins].

Here in Maryland* we work with Governor O’Malley, who has pushed to end childhood hunger in his state. This year our goal—and the goal of the partnership—is to get 24,000 more kids in high-need areas eating a nutritious breakfast every day; that is a big number. We work with schools to encourage alternative breakfasts, like grab-n-go and other ways to move breakfast out of the cafeteria, to remove the barriers that exist—around stigma, transportation, and accessibility.

One of the principals we work with was administering a Maryland practice achievement test. [When he] started to grade these tests, the first one he picked up he noticed that the student had written on top of it: “Can’t think. Don’t care.” When the principal called the student to his office to explain the answer, the answer was pretty stunning—the student said he was too hungry to focus, and too hungry to care. Now this principal and his school are partnering with No Kid Hungry in Maryland, and his school is running an alternative breakfast program to make sure every kid there gets a reliable, healthy breakfast to start the day.

*Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom counts Prince George’s County Schools among its participating districts.

BB: Josh, talk to us about the importance of plugging the hunger gap during school breaks.

Our celebrity spokesperson Jeff Bridges has said that in a lot of ways November and December are make-or-break months for childhood hunger; he said that there are so many kids who don’t experience the holidays the way many of us do, gathered around the dinner table in celebration of thanks. He was talking about how so many kids rely on school meals to eat.

In our economy that continues to be challenging, economic hardship has become a new reality with food and fuel prices up and wages down. Even though the economy is slowly recovering, there are so many families that really teeter on the financial edge, or are for the first time facing hard choices about struggling with food. When school lets out for holidays these families have to stretch their budgets even farther, and rely even more heavily on resources like SNAP.

One of the things we do to help alleviate these challenges is our Cooking Matters program where we educate and empower low-income families to stretch their food budgets so their kids can get healthy meals at home. Cooking Matters participants learn to shop smarter, use nutrition information to make healthier food choices, and how to cook delicious, affordable meals. We did a study recently of 1500 low-income families about cooking help; over 80 percent said they aspire to cook healthy. In fact, over three-quarters of them are cooking at home a minimum of five days a week, which I think really busts a lot of stereotypes about low-income families and their eating habits. The challenge is that they don’t think that eating nutritiously or healthfully was affordable. We try to help those families develop strategies to make eating healthy affordable: we take them to the grocery store and help them choose between fresh, seasonal products and when to buy things in the can to save a few dollars and get nutritional bang for the buck. We talk about unit pricing and why that’s important and how to read a label.

BB: Where can families turn when in need of assistance?

There are a lot of programs like Share Our Strength and our partners who are prepared to help. If you need help finding food resources there is the National Hunger Hotline:




The National Hunger Hotline can connect you with programs. There is also a series of government programs like SNAP and WIC that are there to help when the budget is tight. In addition to programs run by the government there are many private and community-based organizations in neighborhoods across the country, including food banks, soup kitchens, food pantries, and Meals on Wheels programs, that provide temporary assistance to help. Feeding America has a searchable food bank locator.

We need to build a real network of folks who are willing to take a stance against childhood hunger—we believe this is a solvable problem. The food is there, the food programs are there, and we need to connect kids with the food they need. We also encourage folks to get involved in the No Kid Hungry campaign, take the No Kid Hungry pledge, and join this growing national movement of people who are committed to ending childhood hunger in America. In doing so you will be asked to advocate, to reach out to policy makers and other key influencers at the local, state, and national levels; to spread the word, to raise awareness. Part of the issue with childhood hunger is that people don’t know it exists. My experience growing up, even before I took this job, is that when I thought about hunger I thought about international hunger. International hunger is so much more visible to the naked eye. Hunger in America for years has been known as “the invisible hunger”—you can’t see it, but it’s there. It’s in your school yard; it’s in your back yard—one in five kids. So one of the things we need to do is spread the word, and we have developed a lot of ways to share the No Kid Hungry campaign with friends and family, and spread the message about ending childhood hunger in America. We also hold a lot of events around the country that support our cause, to help connect hungry kids to the food they need. Taking the No Kid Hungry pledge is a way to get connected to those resources.

At the holidays donating money is a great way to help. We have a campaign right now—No Kid Hungry “This Thanksgiving”—asking folks to set a place at the table for kids this Thanksgiving with a $46 donation that helps connect the child with food all year round through resources like school breakfast and summer meals. Holiday time is a time when people think a lot about giving back, and we hope that folks will consider joining the No Kid Hungry campaign and supporting our efforts.

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  1. Pingback: Give Thanks and a Helping Hand This Holiday Season

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