When we hear the word “hunger” we often associate it with the impoverished children we see in commercials on TV who look like they are wasting away on the streets of third world countries. We often don’t think of hunger being in our own communities, classrooms, and neighborhoods. Hunger is everywhere. The Idaho Food Bank reports that 1 in 5 children in Idaho are facing food insecurity, meaning they may not know where their next meal is coming from. Food insecurity can put children at nutritional risk, which may lead to a myriad of problems, both in the immediate and long-term future. Children who are hungry may also struggle academically, with more behavioral issues and lower attendance rates than children who are not dealing with hunger.
The signs of hunger may not always be obvious. A child living with food insecurity may not be overtly underweight; in fact, obesity and food insecurity often go hand in hand due to high consumption of calorically dense, nutrient poor foods. Physical symptoms of hunger include chronically dry, itchy eyes, dry, cracked lips, and puffy or swollen skin. Children dealing with chronic hunger may appear to be excessively hungry on Monday morning and may be concerned about wasting food.
Several programs were created to deal with hunger in Idaho. Eligible Idahoans are also able to receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits and women with children under age five are able to qualify for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition programs. While many of these programs assist families facing hunger, 20 percent of food insecure families in Idaho do not qualify for any state funded program to fight hunger.
Fortunately, there are many other programs in Idaho that help get food into the homes and bellies of hungry children. The Idaho Food Bank has several locations across the state that supply Idahoans with access to food and resources. School age children can participate in Backpack Programs, which send them home on Friday afternoons with a backpack full of food for the weekend ahead. Picnic in the Park provides children with nutritious, free meals during the summer. In Cooking Matters classes, families are taught how to prepare healthy, low cost meals.
So what can you do? Get involved! Team up with local food banks, get involved with a food assistance program at a school near you, or organize a community food drive. Hunger can influence every aspect of a child’s life, making it nearly impossible to focus on school or other activities. There is no one solution to preventing hunger in Idaho, but recognizing its signs and knowing about access to resources may prove to be a start.
WIC is an equal opportunity provider.
Megan Johnson is a senior in the Coordinated Program in Dietetics at the University of Idaho