Heaping platters of turkey, bowls of gravy-slathered mashed potatoes, endless pies and more than plenty for leftovers; for millions of children across the United States, a meal like this is as far-fetched a Christmas fantasy as Santa actually dropping down their chimney.
Winter break is anything but a wonderland for children in many of the nation’s estimated 44 million food insecure families, who rely on school lunch for sustenance.
Nearly 16 percent of US households with children were food insecure during 2009, according to the most recently published United States Department of Agriculture figures, meaning that they did not have consistent access to adequate food for active, healthy lives for all household members. CNN Money reports that 14 percent of the nation’s population – or 1 out of 7 people – is now living on food stamps.
Chef Bill Telepan sees the real-time effect of these economic stresses while school is still in session. In addition to his own restaurant, the eponymously-named Telepan, he serves as executive chef of Wellness in the Schools, a non-profit organization that works alongside the New York City school system to bring healthier food and nutritional education to children in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
The kids, he said, often show up hungry. “They’ll polish off their meal, but they’re allowed to get a second meal in public school – it’s called a ‘hungry meal.’ It’s generally a sandwich – peanut butter and jelly or cheese – and there are always those good-hearted lunch people who will give the kids whatever they want, which I think is a great thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if the kids took that extra sandwich home with them – and you’d be surprised to realize how many of the lunch workers are hungry at home themselves.”
Hunger, to put it plainly, hurts. A fact sheet published by national non-profit hunger relief organization Share Our Strength outlines the physical and academic perils into which food insecurity places children – including more frequent illness and hospitalization, slower recovery times and impaired learning ability. It takes an emotional toll as well, with increased behavioral problems, levels of aggression and anxiety, more frequent suspensions and difficulties getting along with other children.
They’re not the only ones taking the stress home with them at the holidays. Donald Miller, who oversees public relations for Island Harvest, the largest hunger relief organization on Long Island, is seeing tremendous shortfalls in the program’s resources this year.
He told Eatocracy, “Prior to the start of the holiday season – the benchmark would be the number of turkeys requested for Thanksgiving and Christmas and this year, it came in at an astounding 42,000, whereas last year the requests were for about 25,000. We’ve taken in around 12,000 so far, so we’re really behind the eight ball.”
Island Harvest’s supplies come largely from private and company donations, local farmers and food drives. People have less to give this year – and much more need. “People wouldn’t think that in a wealthy region like this that there are pockets of hunger. You have people who aren’t just unemployed, but are working in jobs that are paying less. People who are underemployed are waiting until the sun goes down to go to the local food pantry and ask for a handout. That’s hard for a lot of people to do. The middle class are the new people going to food banks.”
The 1,600 children who benefit from Island Harvest’s Weekend Backpack Program may or may not be aware of the emotional toll is taking on their parents; for the most part, according to the program’s CEO Randi Dresner, they’re just happy they’re getting fed. She said, “The Backpack Program was started a couple of years ago to address the problem of children on free or reduced lunch, who have been identified by their schools as being at risk of having nothing to eat over the weekend.”
Before school vacations, such as a winter break, the organization doubles the number of packs they send home with kids – effectively offering an extra weekend’s work of food. There are four meals in a standard pack. They’re paid for, rather than donated, in order to assure consistency, provide for households without access to microwaves, and allow children to prepare the meals for themselves. A typical pack would include two portions of cereal, two shelf-stable milks, healthy snacks such as fruit cups, or healthy cookies or crackers and two lunch meals, such as a tuna or another protein product in a can with a snap-off lid, as well as educational material.
Even though the program did manage to distribute 47,000 packs of food last year, Dresner is still aware of the shortfalls. “We know that they’re coming up against the holidays, and great – we could feed them for the first weekend of the vacation, but what about the rest of the time? It’s an expensive program for us and what we’ve we been able to do through funding is at least give the kids an extra pack – a little bit more nutrition than they would have had.”
As for the emotional and social factors, Dresner said they’re top of mind for her organization. “It’s funny; kids have a different take on the program than their parents might. In the beginning, we used to use the word ‘stealth.’ We’d find someone in each of the schools who would discreetly give out these packs of food to the kids who were selected to be part of the program.”
“Soon after, we went in to visit, and the kids were screaming, ‘Hey, Mrs. So-And-So! Am I getting my pack of food for this weekend?’ They were proud of it. We’ve even had cases where other kids saw what was going on and came to the faculty to ask if they could become part of it. I’m sure the older students are struggling with it, but in the elementary school, it’s really thought of in a whole different way.”
The need for this supplemental nutrition is hardly going away, and Island Harvest’s program is far from the only of its kind. Telepan said that the public school cafeterias in which he operates Wellness in the Schools will be running their usual summer meals-style program to feed hungry students throughout the holidays. This year, Share Our Strength launched the No Kid Hungry program, an awareness and action campaign which works with many other supplemental food programs around the country to provide nutritious, kid-friendly food after school, and over weekends and holidays when school is out.
The group has made a public pledge to end child hunger by 2015, but even with President Obama’s recent signing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act – a $4.5 billion measure that provides more money to poor areas to subsidize free meals, requires schools to abide by health guidelines drafted by the USDA, and increases the reimbursement rate for school lunches – it’s an uphill battle and calls for everyone’s involvement.
“The bill a good start,” said Top Chef judge and childhood hunger activist Tom Colicchio, who testified before Congress on behalf of the bill earlier this year – albeit in a larger form. “However, it’s just the beginning. This reform is a long way down the road, and it’s going to call for systemic change. It’s not something that can be solved at the charity level – you can’t just go to one event dinner, pat yourself on the back and be done with it.”
He echoed the sentiment of nearly everyone involved in the cause, “It doesn’t just end after the holidays, either. Hunger is a twelve-month problem.”