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Hunger Pains 

Hungry kids are more anxious, more apt to suffer from chronic illness and more likely to have behavioral problems.

New Orleanians have a famous love affair with food. But far too many people who live here go to bed hungry.

"The numbers are so staggering -- the need in New Orleans is at a level that nobody is meeting right now," says Jenny Rodgers, spokeswoman for Second Harvest Food Bank. Second Harvest has increased its southern Louisiana distribution by roughly 100 times over the past two decades -- but it's still not enough. "Our services have grown and grown, but we're still not reaching everybody who needs us," Rodgers says.

Last Monday, Aug. 30, Mayor Ray Nagin joined Second Harvest to announce a plan, "A Blueprint to End Hunger," designed to reduce hunger in this city by half over the next five years. It's part of a nationwide effort spearheaded by the coalition National Anti-Hunger Organizations. The Blueprint, developed by the coalition, spells out what private citizens, nonprofit organizations and government can do to reduce hunger.

Currently, one in four Louisiana children live in "food insecure" households, which do not have access to enough food. This is largely due to widespread poverty. Last month's U.S. Census report found that 17.2 percent of Louisiana residents now live in poverty, the second worst rate in the nation.

At the top of the Blueprint's list of priorities is better access to the national Food Stamp Program, which was established in 1964 and currently feeds millions of Americans, mostly families with children. Nationwide, the program has grown by 42 percent over the past four years. Participation is also rising rapidly in Louisiana, where the federally funded program pays about $3 per day to 685,202 recipients.

Louisiana's Department of Social Services (DSS), which administers the program, has worked hard to reduce barriers to food stamps. Applicants who owned cars, even if they were still paying a car note, were once turned away because they had too many assets. Recent legislation changed that. DSS also shares computer files with the state Department of Education, so that kids from food-stamp families are automatically eligible for free school lunches.

DSS also should consider some of the Blueprint's suggested changes, such as adding evening and weekend hours at food-stamp offices so recipients don't have to miss work to go there. DSS should submit a State Food Stamp Outreach Plan to the feds, who provide matching funds for state food-stamp outreach. Outreach workers -- stationed at food pantries, schools, public housing complexes and unemployment offices -- could help applicants fill out the program's seven-page application on the spot.

The state should also examine whether current benefit levels are adequate to feed each recipient for an entire month. In general, children -- especially younger children -- are protected from hunger unless it reaches severe levels in the household. Typically, moms, dads and grandparents will skip meals or not eat on certain days so that the kids in the house can eat.

But adults shouldn't have to go hungry either. A Minneapolis doctor initiated a study about hunger at a public hospital there after a number of her patients who couldn't afford groceries quit taking insulin -- a life-threatening situation. She found that one out of three patients with hypoglycemic reactions were not able to buy food.

It's no secret that inner-city stores can be expensive, offering little, if any, fresh produce. City Hall should find creative ways to help local food-stamp participants access healthy, affordable foods. They could, for example, establish neighborhood farmer's markets where customers can pay with food-stamp cards. They should also work with Orleans Parish Schools to ensure that every hungry kid can access school breakfast, lunch, after-school and summer food programs.

What happens otherwise is outlined in the Blueprint's section titled "Obesity and Hunger." When healthy foods are not available on a regular basis, poor people often rely on less expensive, high-calorie foods to stave off hunger. This creates the odd situation where the same households, even the same people, can suffer from both obesity and hunger. A 2003 study found that, for school-age girls from food-insecure households, participation in food stamps, school lunch or school breakfast reduces the risk of obesity.

Research shows that hungry students are more anxious and more likely to suffer from chronic illness. They're also more likely to have behavioral problems. In working-poor households where money is stretched thin, food money is often spent on utility bills, rent, medicine and child care. Nationwide, only one in seven eligible children in low-income working families receives a childcare subsidy. Only one in four eligible low-income renters receives rental assistance. As part of New Orleans' commitment to cutting hunger in half by 2010, the Nagin administration should re-evaluate current approaches to health care, utility assistance, affordable housing and child care. Money not spent on child care can be used to feed that child. Money not spent on rent can help ensure that no one in that household goes hungry. Money spent on food can, in the long run, prevent hospital visits, boost school achievement, and prevent our neighbors from going to bed hungry.

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