Some 13 million children in the United States live in homes with limited access to a sufficient food supply. Children are being aided substantially by food stamps. In more than 800 counties nationwide, one in three children is getting this critical nutrition assistance. In the mid-American cities of St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans, half the children get food stamp (SNAP) benefits. Even in Peoria, Illinois – the proverbial Everytown, USA – the figure is 40 percent. In the Bronx, 46 percent of children are on food stamps. In East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, SNAP helps three in four children. A new generation of research demonstrates a direct link between inadequate food supply and a poorer overall health status among U.S. children, according to LSU AgCenter food and nutrition expert Dr. Annrose Guarino.
Caseload growth pervasive across the country: More than one in eight Americans now receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, and the rolls are increasing by about 20,000 people per day as the recession drags on. In the meantime, however, SNAP is keeping local economies from sinking even further. According to recent news reports, there are 239 counties in the U.S. where at least a quarter of the population receives food stamps. In over 750 counties, SNAP is helping to feed one-third of African Americans.
“This is the most urgent time for our feeding programs in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression,” noted Kevin Concannon, the Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “It’s time to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people.”
"Food security, the ability to obtain food without having to resort to emergency sources, is an important factor in the physical and mental development of children," the LSU AgCenter nutrition expert points out, adding, "Food hardships are even more pronounced among certain groups of children." For example, about 30 percent of African-American and Hispanic children and more than 40 percent of low-income children live in homes that do not have access to nutritionally adequate diets.
Guarino says adverse effects of hunger among children include heath consequences, behavioral impacts and academic outcomes. Research strongly suggests that children who live in households with insufficient access to food are more likely to be in poorer health than children from food-sufficient households.
Hungry children are more likely to develop frequent illnesses and infections such as sore throats, colds, stomachaches, headaches and iron deficiency anemia. In addition, these children go to the hospital more.
Guarino says insufficient food supply is associated with an increased incidence of behavior problems in adolescents, including higher levels of aggression, hyperactivity and anxiety. Research reveals that food-insecure children have greater difficulty getting along with other children, increased chances of being suspended from school and a greater need for mental health counseling.
Previous research has demonstrated that continuous lack of food can result in malnutrition over time, and even the mildest form of malnutrition can limit a child’s ability to understand basic skills and reduce overall learning potential. For example, children from food-insecure households did not perform as well on academic achievement tests as did children from food-secure households.
Guarino adds that elementary school children from food-insufficient families were more likely to have repeated a grade in school and have higher rates of tardiness and absences from school, which may affect their overall academic performance.
With the given evidence that hunger and food insecurity are significant risk factors in child development, Guarino says efforts are needed to increase the food security of American children. She notes that nutrition education programs, such as the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Nutrition Education (SNAP-Ed), are designed to educate low-income families and youth on making healthy food choices, preparing food safely and managing money or food stamps to ensure there is enough food.
"To win the battle against child hunger, it is essential that we utilize and strengthen our federal programs to the greatest extent," Guarino asserts.
The food and nutrition expert also recommends contacting an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office to learn more about food security issues.
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