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Child hunger an increasingly complex problem

According to data issued this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of children living in homes without enough food soared in 2008 from 13 million to nearly 17 million.

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Hunger by the numbers
By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 12, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- Three weeks before he was elected president, Barack Obama set an audacious goal: end hunger among children in the United States by 2015.

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Since his inauguration, Obama has seldom broached the subject. His aides brainstorm weekly with several agencies, but their internal conversations so far have not produced fundamentally new approaches. The president's goal could prove daunting: Childhood hunger is more complex than previously understood, new research suggests, and is unlikely to be solved simply by spending more money for food programs.

If Obama intends to erase childhood hunger, the government will need to reach even further into the rowhouse kitchen where Anajyha Wright Mitchell sometimes takes tiny portions so her mother will have more food. "I tell her to eat, eat, eat, because she is real skinny," Anajyha, 12, said of her mother, Andrea Mitchell.

Anajyha, a serious girl with two younger brothers and a mother who has lost two of her three part-time jobs, is growing up with an ebb and flow of food typical of a growing number of families. In her home, in a scuffed neighborhood called Strawberry Mansion a few miles north of the Liberty Bell, food stamps arrive but never last the month. There can be cereal but no milk. Pancake mix and butter but no eggs.

The intricacy of the problem -- and of the Obama administration's task -- plays out here, where Anajyha could have enough to eat but shortchanges herself.

Philadelphia offers a particularly vivid ground-level view of what researchers call a "silent epidemic" of hungry and undernourished youngsters. For years, local civic activists, health experts and politicians have tried some of the nation's most innovative experiments -- and learned how intractable hunger can be. Researchers here have also been at the leading edge in trying to fathom the effects of a scarcity of food.

Even when children are not hungry, studies have found that slight shortages of food in their homes are associated with serious problems. Babies and toddlers in those homes are far more likely to be hospitalized than children in families with similar incomes but adequate food. School-age children tend to learn and grow more slowly, and to get into trouble more often. Teenage girls are more prone to be depressed or even flirt with thoughts of suicide.

Solving the problem is further complicated by its subtle nature. "Most people who are hungry are not clinically manifesting what we consider hunger. It doesn't even affect body weight," said Mariana Chilton, a Drexel University medical anthropologist who is part of Children's HealthWatch, a network of pediatricians and public health researchers in Philadelphia and four other cities. Hunger cannot be solved by food alone, their work shows, because it is one strand in a web of pressures that trap families, including housing and energy costs.

A nuanced problem

This more nuanced picture is emerging as the problem has become more widespread. With the economy faltering, the number of youngsters living in homes without enough food soared in 2008 from 13 million to nearly 17 million, the Agriculture Department reported last month.

In Philadelphia, researchers found that, during the first half of this year, one in five homes with a baby or toddler did not have enough food. And one of every dozen young children was outright hungry, a rate twice that of the same period the year before.

Although the problem has deepened, White House and Agriculture Department officials say the president's goal remains, as one put it, "something that seems manageable." Congress increased food stamp benefits this year by $20 billion and, more recently, set aside money to test ways to feed children when school is out for the summer. The president's aides are focusing on a congressional debate, deferred from this year to next, on how to renew the nation's main child nutrition law.

Although ideas in Washington have not fully crystallized, an unlikely lobbying force is at work. A group of Philadelphia women has begun appearing on Capitol Hill and at national conferences as part of a "Witnesses to Hunger" project, organized by Chilton, who handed video cameras to 42 mothers to document their efforts to feed their children.


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