Last year after a “big check” photo, our Chairman and CEO Mehran Assadi turned to John Sayles, the CEO of the Vermont Foodbank and asked, “How many hungry children are there in Vermont?”
John replied, “Roughly 34,000.”
“Why are there so many?” Mehran questioned. “Vermont is a small state. It seems we should be able to tackle this, doesn’t it?”
Mehran’s question wasn’t an attack on the good work the Vermont Foodbank, or any other nonprofit, is doing to end childhood hunger. But it was a good question, one that prompted National Life to declare that helping end childhood hunger in Vermont would be our cause.
We recognize that we’re not experts in the many issues that contribute to childhood hunger in our home state. What we do know is that we can help bring together funders and businesses, healthcare professionals and government agencies and of course nonprofits to work together, in tandem, to figure this out.
The journey so far has been humbling and revealing. I’ve learned when a child is hungry, they can’t focus in school which often leads to behavioral issues. They get bullied if their school doesn’t have universal free or reduced lunch because they’re pegged as the “poor kid.” They deal with anxiety because they try to think through where their next meal might come from. And they worry about their family who sometimes goes without so they can have food.
The other part of this equation is food insecurity, defined as “the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” To provide food for their children, adults will resort to what they can afford. Cheap isn’t often nutritious. A toaster pastry and snack cake cannot sustain anyone, especially a growing child. Poor nutrition results in a number of health issues, including diabetes and obesity.
In “Impossible Choices: Teens & Food Insecurity in America,” a report by the Urban Institute, teenagers shared that some especially desperate kids will commit crimes to go to jail to ensure they get three meals a day. Said some focus group participants, “It might not be the best food, it might not be the best place to be, but it’s a roof over your head. And every single day, they eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Is this what children should have to resort to?
Some might argue that this seems like a social or a political issue. What we’ve discovered is that this is a health issue, one that’s impacting our collective future. Others ask why do we as a financial services company care? We care because our vision is to bring peace of mind to everyone we touch. If there are neighbors of ours who need help, then we want to figure out how we can do that.
We also recognize that this issue needs to be addressed in a number of ways. To better understand the scope of childhood hunger and food insecurity in Vermont as well as to learn about solutions, we commissioned research. We’ll make this data available to anyone and everyone who wants to address the issue once it’s finalized.
We also know there are programs that exist today that are helping kids get the nutritious food they need. That’s why we gave grants to fund the backpack program through the Vermont Foodbank as well as to support the good work Hunger Free Vermont is doing to make breakfast and lunch accessible to all kids in school, regardless of income level. In a few months we plan to convene a coalition of thought leaders in this state to discuss the research findings and come up with a plan to end childhood hunger here, once and for all. We also support the backpack program at the North Texas Food Bank since we have a campus in Dallas.
I recall the story of a little girl who was the recipient of a backpack full of nutritious food through the Foodbank’s program. Every Friday she would discreetly pick it up and take it home to her family. She told the guidance counselor who arranged this for her that it made her so happy that she could take care of her family. She was 5 years old.
No child should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. Being a kid today is hard enough.
Are you interested in helping too? September is Hunger Action Month. Check out the resources available through your local Foodbank to see what you can do. It can be something as simple as volunteering at your local food shelf or not judging when someone needs to access one.
Many of our neighbors have to make unimaginable choices: “do I use my paycheck to pay for rent, heat and food? Or should I pay for the medicine I need rather than food?” Often due to unexpected life events like becoming ill, losing a job, divorce or the death of a loved one, families find themselves in a place no one wants to be.
Let’s work together to help them get to someplace better.