When Americans think about childhood hunger, they tend to picture impoverished families in developing nations far away. But the fact of the matter is 13 million kids in the U.S. face hunger.
On Thursday, the nonprofit Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign released a report on childhood hunger in the U.S. and how food insecurity can affect school performance. The findings are eye-opening.
Titled “Hunger in Our Schools,” the report found that 1 in 6 kids in the U.S. face hunger. Sixty-two percent of low-income parents worry about running out of food for their children before having enough money to buy more, and 35 percent of kids share that fear.
The findings are based on a series of surveys of low-income parents, students and teachers. Five hundred parents and their children, ages 13 to 18, and 325 teachers in the U.S. responded to the surveys, and data from focus groups supplemented the results.
The report showed that 23 percent of low-income parents had been forced to reduce the size of their kids’ meals due to financial restraints, and 34 percent said they can’t afford nutritious and well-balanced meals for their families.
“One of the most surprising finds from the report was just how many low-income families are living on the brink of hunger,” Brian Minter, a senior manager with the No Kid Hungry campaign, told HuffPost. “Two-thirds of parents said just one unplanned expense would make it difficult to afford enough food for the family.”
Indeed, 64 percent of parents surveyed said it would be hard to feed their families if they were to encounter an unexpected expense, like a $1,500 medical bill or car repair. For context, a 2013 study funded by the National Institutes of Health found the average cost of an outpatient emergency room visit was $1,233.
And it’s not just parents who are worrying about this. “One thing we heard repeatedly in our focus group interviews that surprised us ― and saddened us ― was older children telling us how they skipped meals or took only small portions in order to save food for their younger siblings, even though they were hungry,” said Minter.
The report had some notable findings about hunger and education. Fifty-nine percent of children from low-income families said they’ve come to school hungry, 46 percent said hunger negatively affects their school performance and 12 percent said they’re sometimes too distracted by hunger to do their homework at night.
Fifty-nine percent of teachers said they regularly buy food for students who don’t get enough to eat at home, and most reported spending about $300 each year on food for students. Seventy-six percent said they’ve seen hunger lead to poor academic performance.
Minter believes these findings underscore the importance of federal programs like school meals, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC. “Hunger exists in nearly every community in America today. It’s an urban problem, it’s a rural problem, and it has come to our suburbs. It is also a solvable problem,” he said.
“Programs like school meals and SNAP are vital in making sure kids get to eat when times get tough,” he continued. “We also hope this report helps more people spread the word about the direct connection between feeding kids and building a strong America. Consistent access to good nutrition means stronger, smarter, healthier kids. And that means a stronger, smarter, healthier nation.”
Of the families surveyed who rely on food programs, 92 percent were working families, with at least one adult in the house working full time, part time or multiple jobs.
The No Kid Hungry report comes at a time when such programs are at risk. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget calls for cuts to federal SNAP spending. In April, the House of Representatives introduced a bill that would scale back the number of free meals offered at schools in the U.S.
In February, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came under fire for making a “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” jab at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during the Conservative Political Action Conference. Many criticized the joke as tone-deaf coming from someone meant to advocate for the welfare of all children in the U.S. ― many of whom rely on free school lunches.
Minter calls on everyday citizens to do what they can ― urging people to share the No Kid Hungry report with friends on social media, elected officials and educators in their communities. He also encouraged people to stand up for programs that help kids get the nutrition they need, like proposals for school breakfast.
Said Minter, “Everyone can join the fight to end childhood hunger.”