We have the tools to end childhood hunger. Let's use them.
As we prepare for our Thanksgiving bounty, it's hard to believe that there might be a kid on our block who doesn't know when her next meal will come. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that nearly one in four children struggles with hunger.
For most Americans with enough to eat, the hungry kid in our neighborhood is invisible. Hunger in the United States doesn't look like famine in developing countries, but its consequences are nonetheless devastating. Children who don't regularly get enough healthy food suffer behavioral difficulties, fatigue, poorer health, weaker immune systems and more hospitalizations. Not surprisingly, hungry kids also show impaired performance in school - academically, athletically and socially. More than 60 percent of public school teachers identify hunger as a problem in the classroom. Roughly the same percentage go into their own pockets to buy food for their hungry students.
But here's the good news: We can end childhood hunger in America in this decade, maybe even in the next five years. The programs to achieve this are already in place. They're just woefully underutilized. We need to get more of our children into them.
For kids, our national food and nutrition programs can be the difference between empty stomachs and good health. Fortunately, increasing access to these programs makes economic sense for our communities. According to the USDA, every $5 the federal government spends on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, generates $9.20 in local economic activity.
Furthermore, every time we increase access to SNAP, school breakfast and summer meals served by schools, federal funding flows into local communities. For example, when Orange County, Fla., used targeted marketing to increase summer meal participation by 76 percent last year, the county was able to access more than $2 million in federal money.
Several states are following suit. With the backing of Gov. Bill Ritter, the Colorado Campaign to End Childhood Hunger helped increase the number of summer meals served by more than 25 percent from 2009 to 2010. By successfully lobbying for legislation to expand food stamp eligibility, End Childhood Hunger Washington helped raise food stamp participation in that state by 64 percent, reaching an additional 370,000 people. And Gov. Martin O'Malley's Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in Maryland increased the number of low-income children eating summer meals by 17.4 percent in 2009, while the national average was dropping.
Share Our Strength and the End Hunger Network are now collaborating with more communities where leaders realize that until they expand participation in food and nutrition programs, they are shortchanging not just their children but also our nation's future. In Washington state, Florida, Colorado, Arkansas and Maryland, we're seeing that a little ingenuity can increase the enrollment of our most vulnerable kids. Our goal is not to expand government or create new bureaucracies, but to encourage the public and private sectors to work together to make existing programs more effective.
Help for hungry children is surely a bipartisan cause. Congress can demonstrate its commitment by passing the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which would strengthen many of the most important hunger and nutrition programs, including school breakfast and summer meals. The bill passed the Senate without a single objection in August and is awaiting House action. It will only be weakened if we wait for the next Congress.
We have food. We have the right programs in place. It's Thanksgiving. Let's act now to ensure that all of our children eat, learn, grow and thrive.
Academy Award-winning actor Jeff Bridges founded the nonprofit End Hunger Network in 1983. Bill Shore is the founder and executive director of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to make sure no child in America grows up hungry.