Benjamin Von Wong’s portrayal of kids foraging for food may be fantastical, but child hunger is all too real. They may not be scaling mountains to get food, but there are kids in nearly every neighborhood who are worried they won’t get enough to eat on any given day. Imagine coming home from school and finding nothing to eat. The cupboards are bare and the refrigerator is empty. Kids tell us they feel scared when there’s no food in the house.
This is happening in homes all across America. Yes, right here in the land of plenty. It’s a problem that’s often hidden. In the U.S., hungry kids don’t stand out. You can’t tell by looking.
But the reality is more than 13 million kids in the U.S. are food insecure, meaning they don’t have reliable access to food. Even in Silicon Valley, one of the wealthiest areas in the country, an astounding 1 in 3 kids is at risk for hunger.
The booming tech economy is actually contributing to the problem because it’s driving up the price of housing in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s what we call the Silicon Valley hunger paradox. As the economy grows, so does the number of families who need food. They simply can’t afford to pay the high rents and put food on the table, which doesn’t bode well for local kids. Second Harvest is feeding more families than we did at the height of the Great Recession, including 89,000 kids every month.
Across the entire country, it’s getting harder for families to get ahead. The American Dream stays just out of reach. Wages haven’t increased for the bottom 50 percent like they have for the top 1 percent, according to CNN Money. From 1980 to 2014, the average post-tax income for the bottom 50 percent of wage earners went from $21,000 to $25,000. Is that all? When you think about how much everything costs now compared to 1980, it’s easy to see why so many families are struggling to pay their bills.
Cash-strapped families often pay for rent and other fixed expenses like utility bills first and then cut corners when it comes to food. Too many kids are living on cheap and unhealthy foods because it’s all their parents can afford.
Too hungry to learn
Ever try solving a complicated math problem while your stomach’s growling? Are you able to focus on reading when all you can think about is food?
Hunger and education are linked. Studies show that kids who don’t get enough nutritious food to eat have trouble concentrating, are sick more often, and are more likely to suffer emotional and physical effects that can hurt their ability to do well in school. That means those who aren’t getting the fuel they need are potentially missing out on a decent education and a chance for success in adulthood.
Last year, we brought together anti-hunger advocates and education leaders focused on closing the academic achievement gap at our annual Hunger Action Summit, with the theme “Too Hungry to Learn.” We heard stories from those on the frontlines about the negative effects of hunger on kids in the classroom.
These stories are all too common. A nationwide survey found that educators who regularly see kids coming to school hungry report a number of problems:
- 88 percent saw an inability to concentrate
- 87 percent saw lack of energy or motivation
- 84 percent saw poor academic performance
- 82 percent saw tiredness
- 65 percent saw behavioral problems
- 53 percent saw students feeling sick
The good news is studies also show that kids who have access to food-assistance programs perform better at school and score higher on tests. For example, decades of research show that school breakfast supports academic achievement. The odds of achieving an above-average academic performance doubled for those who ate school breakfast compared with those who didn’t.
Participating in SNAP, the federal food stamp program, can also lead to improvements in reading and math skills among elementary school kids, especially young girls. Adults who had access to food stamps as young children were more likely to graduate from high school and had lower rates of certain long-term health problems like obesity and heart disease.
This tells us that nutritious food is the foundation for a healthy, productive life. Without it, kids struggle to get ahead and the cycle of poverty continues.
Second Harvest stands up for kids
Hunger is contributing to the widening wealth gap. That’s why Second Harvest is committed to ensuring that the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs has access to the healthy food they need to succeed.
Schools are a great place to reach kids and families, so we’ve sharpened our focus on partnering with local schools. We’re working with high-need school districts to offer wraparound services to kids and their families. That could include a school pantry, nutrition education, and outreach services to connect families to food assistance, including Second Harvest programs and federally funded efforts like SNAP (called CalFresh in California).
We provide groceries and fresh produce to thousands of kids and families through our growing school pantry program. We now serve 100 schools, including 10 community colleges, in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in California. We also distribute food through our partner network at more than 850 sites up and down the peninsula.
During the summer, Second Harvest works with libraries, day camps and other organizations to create a network of summer feeding sites where kids can get a free meal. We also support programs like the Big Lift and Lunch at the Library that directly tackle the issue of “summer slide” – when kids forget what they learned during the school year – while also providing the nutrition kids need.
“It’s shocking how close to home the problem is and how little I knew about,” Von Wong told us. “But what I was even more shocked by was Second Harvest’s impact. I had never envisioned what a million meals would look like. But the Food Bank distributes the equivalent of a million meals every week.”
Second Harvest is also thinking differently about food-banking and venturing into uncharted waters to find new and innovative ways to connect more kids and families to food. We are leveraging existing food-assistance programs like school meals and forming new partnerships to get more food into the hands of those who need it.
Now that you know a little bit more about child hunger, we’re hoping you’ll want to help us build a hunger-free community. Because when hunger hits kids, it can hurt them for the rest of their lives.
What can you do?
- Help others see child hunger by sharing this blog and #WhenHungerHits photos