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

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.

Even if the children aren't skipping meals, though, they feel the effects of hunger. Mothers like Johnston are three times more likely to report symptoms of depression than mothers who get enough to eat, according to Children's HealthWatch, a nonprofit that studies how economic conditions affect children under 3. Depressed moms show less affection, read fewer stories and are less likely to play with their children than their mentally healthy peers. A recent study from Drexel University further suggests children pick up feelings of anger, anxiety and depression from parents who are stressed about food.

"Food insecurity affects their social, emotional development," Chilton said. "If they see their mom depriving herself at the dinner table, if they see her crying because of frustration, they feel that anxiety and insecurity, too."

Physical consequences

The Johnstons have been struggling to make ends meet since Dad lost his job as a cook at Flying J two years ago. He's working odd hours for a cousin's carpentry business, but it's barely enough to pay the bills. Johnston is on disability because of a seizure condition. Even with the help of coupon clipping, SNAP and two local emergency food pantries Johnston has run the cupboards bare.

When children start skipping meals, the health consequences are dire, Chilton said. Hungry children are more susceptible to illness. Children in food insecure households are two to four times more likely to report poor health than their peers.

Malnutrition can negatively impact cognitive development, too. During the first three years of life, a child's brain is rapidly developing. Any interruption to this process, such as lack of nutrients or stress, can have long-term effects of the brain's structure, Chilton said. When they don't get enough to eat, children become lethargic and stop playing and exploring their environment. Without this stimulation, children fall behind socially and academically.

"When they don't get the nutrients they need early on they don't bounce back," Chilton said. "The brain is growing so fast any kind of deprivation has consequences that follow the child on to adulthood."

The right kind of food

Johnston's refrigerator was well-stocked Thursday because she just cashed in her Food Stamps. "Things start getting tight at the end of the month," she said, as she helped Payton open a can of store-brand tomato soup. That's when she stops serving chicken enchiladas and ham sandwiches and starts serving potatoes and Top Ramen.

"It's not what I want to feed my family," she said. "It's all I can afford."

Ninety-four percent of food insecure households cannot afford to eat balanced meals, according to survey data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Low-nutrient foods cost an average of $3.32 per 1,000 calories, according to a University of Washington study. By comparison, the most nutrient dense foods ring in at about $27.20 per 1,000 calories.

Emergency food pantries are chronically short on fruits and vegetables, too, said Lydia Herrera, director of Hildegardes Pantry in Salt Lake City. Donations are especially slow in summer. Aside from a good sized stack of cookies, cakes, soda pop and chips, Herrera's shelves looked bare Wednesday.

"We don't ever get fresh groceries," she said. "We hardly ever have meat or milk. No rice or beans. We have food that will feed you if you're hungry but it's not good for you."

Investing in the future

Regardless of the outcome of the new national budget, spending on child nutrition programs is on track to fall over the next decade as ARRA funds run out, according to a report by the Urban Institute. Growing interest payments on the national debt, and the growth of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will consume more than 100 percent of anticipated growth in spending between now and 2020. Without reform, the Urban Institute predicts child nutrition programs will be among the programs to take a squeeze.

Chilton reacted to the forecast with disgust.

"Our hunger rates were extraordinarily high before the recession," she said. "The recession has made things far worse — but this could have been avoided if people were paying attention to hunger before the recession. If we return to the rates we had before the recession, there is nothing to celebrate."

Johnston took the news with a flat, emotionless face.

"I don't know what I'd do without food assistance," she said. "I just don't know."

Email: estuart@desnews.com