Food insecurity: more families struggling to keep kids well-fed

Published: Sunday, Aug. 7 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

Kimberly Johnston readies dinner for two of her sons, Dion and Payton, at their home in Tooele on Thursday.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

TOOELE — Two little blonde boys in matching wire-rimmed glasses bounce on the couch.

"I'm hungry," says one, at 6, the smaller of the two.

"Me, too," says the other, a 9-year-old sporting a Transformers tank and too-big basketball shorts. "Can I have a snack, Mommy? Please? Please?."

Kimberley Johnston, watching cartoons with the two in her Tooele living room, takes a deep breath. A million thoughts run through her head: "I don't have a snack to give you." "I'm afraid we won't have enough food for scheduled meals." "We don't have money to go grocery shopping." But she keeps at those thoughts to herself, protecting her children with her silence just as she shields their little tummies from hunger by giving up her own breakfast and lunch each day.

"Sorry, boys," she says, simply. "It's not time for dinner yet."

One in four American children live in households without enough food to go around, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At 17 million, there are more children battling hunger today since officials started keeping track in 1995. While food insecurity — the federal government's catch phrase for not having enough food to support a healthy lifestyle — has increased by 40 percent across the board since the recession began, economic hard times have hit kids the hardest. Families with children struggle with food insecurity at almost double the rate of childless households. The number relying on food pantries has increased by 66 percent since 2007.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 helped temporarily offset the impact of the recession by investing extra money in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program). Two years later, though, economic recovery is still inching along and the number of people signing up for food assistance is still on the uptick. Even as economists warn of a second recession, child nutrition programs like SNAP are on the chopping block.

"We are not out of the danger zone," said Mariana Chilton, an associate professor at Drexel University and one of the nation's leading hunger experts. "In some ways our nation's future is very insecure in the same way a family can be food insecure. The worry of shut-off notices, the worry of not being able to afford enough food, the worry of mounting debt, all with the knowledge that this situation is going to harm our health, our potential. It makes for a very scary and depressing time."

An emotional toll

Dion, 6, and Payton, 9, don't look hungry. Their cheeks are filled out. There is meat on their bones. When asked about the food situation at their house, they rattle on about favorite foods and helping their mom and dad cook.

But Payton notices his mother skips meals. And he doesn't like it.

"I tell her to eat all the time," he said. "She doesn't listen."

Mothers are most likely to go hungry in food insecure households. Ninety-seven percent of adults in food insecure households report cutting back or skipping meals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Twenty-eight percent of adults said they have forgone eating for an entire day to ensure there was enough for the children.

"I don't eat so there's enough for my babies," Johnston said.

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