My colleague, Christina, recently volunteered at a local elementary school where she helped stuff food into backpacks for children who are struggling with food insecurity (lack of access to nutritious food) and hunger. She told me she was chatting with a school employee who shared how grateful the kids were to get this food for weekends. She then told Christina that a 5-year old came to school shaking, he was so hungry.
He was shaking, he was so hungry.
We live in Vermont, in the United States of America, where fruit and vegetables grow in fields across the state, where food is available in farmers markets, grocery stores, and even Walmart. So why are there 19,000 disclosed cases of childhood food insecurity here? Why can’t these kids get nutritious food? After all, it’s not a big state, right?
That’s right. It’s not a big state. But it’s a big issue, one that needs a clear lens to focus, which means we shouldn’t cloud our response with judgment. For example, because there are food insecure kids in our communities it doesn’t automatically mean they’re neglected. Typically, their parents are hungry, too. If they have anything they often give it to their children and they go without.
Let’s also not judge why these families are in this position. No one wakes up hoping they’ll be poor, having to choose between medicine, rent, car payments, or food. Many families are one catastrophe away from needing some sort of assistance. I’ve heard of families where both parents were employed only to have one partner lose their job or become ill. Last month, this family was making ends meet. This month those ends are frayed.
Another real life example is of a family that included a mother, father and three children. The mother’s parents both were diagnosed with dementia so they moved in so the mother could care for them. The mother had to leave her job to do it. Now there were two additional mouths to feed, medicine to buy, and one less income.
Recognizing that food insecurity and hunger does indeed exist in our communities and we as individuals and organizations can help has become more and more clear. That’s why at National Life we decided in 2018 we want to help end childhood hunger in Vermont. Once we determined that, the question then became, what does “help” look like?
For years, National Life has supported the good work of anti-hunger organizations with grants, sponsorships, volunteer time, food drives, and more. But we recognized that the number of food insecure kids hasn’t diminished significantly over the years. It was time to do something more. Something different.
That’s when we commissioned research through the Urban Institute to help everyone who wants to tackle this problem better understand the true scope of it. After months of interviews and data collection, the Urban Institute released “Evidence-Based Strategies to End Childhood Food Insecurity and Hunger in Vermont.”
This report includes valuable information, some of which validated previous assumptions. For example, food insecure families can’t rely solely on federal programs. Many of these programs have strict limitations right down to the “right-sized milk and fat content of yogurt.” Plus, enrollment can be intimidating or some families might not even qualify.
The research uncovered some new details though, including:
- It would take a person working for minimum wage 85 hours a week to afford a two bedroom apartment. Add to this the fact that Vermont has the nation’s eighth highest electricity rates, it becomes clear how families struggle financially.
- Due to the opioid crisis, grandparents and other family members are stepping in to raise children whose parents are addicts. These “grandfamilies” are often already living on fixed incomes and budgets for basic necessities: rent or mortgage, heat, medicine. When children arrive at their doorstep unexpectedly and stay, the budget they had gets stretched beyond capacity.
- Teens suggested that food be made available where other teens gather, such as sports practices, recreation camps, or clubs. This way it’s available to everyone and no one stands out as the poor kid who needs food.
The Urban Institute also suggested opportunities for action and investment, including:
- Make school meals free for all. Why feed those who have the resources to feed themselves, you might ask? An insightful study recently conducted by the University of Vermont and Hunger Free Vermont showed that when universal meals (breakfast and lunch) were provided to all kids, the entire culture of the school shifted. Food insecure kids were no longer bullied for being poor. Since they weren’t bullied and had nutritious food, they also performed better in school. This meant teachers had more time with the entire class rather than focusing on those who had behavioral (aka, hunger) issues. Principals didn’t have to chase down delinquent school lunch payments from families who could very well be their own neighbors. Food service workers didn’t have to make personal judgment calls and risk losing their jobs when they gave the kids food who were hungry yet had no money left on their account. And school administrators didn’t have to muddle through piles of paperwork.
- Consider mobile food options. Since Vermont is such a rural state, it’s difficult to get children access to nutritious food when they’re not in school.
This is just some of what is in the report. We’ve begun to bring together key stakeholders from throughout the state to collectively brainstorm and determine what quick wins exist today as well as longer-term strategies. There is an undercurrent of excitement and interest because many of these stakeholders don’t have the opportunity to meet regularly and bounce ideas off of one another. Our plan is to change that by leading a coalition.
At National Life, we also want to inspire others to think differently. We understand that there are immediate needs that must be met. But what big ideas are out there that haven’t seen the light of day? How can we attack this issue from a different angle? What can we do together that can make a more significant impact?
These are questions we’ll ask. It’s activity we’ll track and outcomes we’ll measure. Because someday, hopefully sooner than later, there will be no child who shakes because he’s so hungry.