SARASOTA — No one took child hunger seriously in Dayle Hayes’ small Montana town. Until one day, when a school lunchroom employee found a fourth-grader rummaging through the dumpster on a Friday afternoon.
“That child knew two things,” Hayes, a registered dietitian, said at a Child Hunger Summit in Sarasota on Tuesday. “There might not be food at home that weekend, and food was going to waste at their school every day.”
The problem is not limited to Montana.
“We are one of the richest counties in Florida, yet 25 percent of children in Sarasota are food insecure,” said Sandra Frank, CEO of All Faiths Food Bank, which organized the third annual hunger summit that brought in experts from Florida and other states.
Data show that 52 percent of children enrolled in Sarasota schools are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, an indicator of food insecurity at home.
In DeSoto County, which All Faiths also serves, nearly 100 percent of enrolled students are eligible.
Frank calls them the “invisible children” because it’s so difficult for the community to imagine such need going on here. Last year, All Faiths distributed 6.5 million meals and served 63,000 people.
Zoom out, and you’ll find that 1.1 million children in Florida are considered food insecure, meaning they don’t have consistent access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food.
An education issue
“To close some of the academic achievement gaps, we really need to focus on the fact that hunger is an education issue,” Hayes said. One of her favorite places to be, she half-joked, is a school’s cafeteria.
There, she hears kids tell her how food affects them. It helps me listen and learn, a first-grader told her. It helps me do better in math, another said.
Hayes asked the crowd of about 300 at the summit whether they had ever heard the term “hangry” — that mix of hungry and angry that can make any adult delirious. Imagine a hangry child in school, Hayes said.
“Children who are not well nourished cannot behave well and are not ready to learn,” she said.
Food insecurity has a snowball effect on kids, noted Dr. Sandra Hassink at the summit. For infants and toddlers, the effects can be devastating, since they're busy developing neurons every minute. Hunger can aggravate chronic conditions such as ADHD and diabetes, and can also be a predictor of mental health issues in early adulthood.
Hassink said she’s heard of educators who, highly aware of hunger’s pernicious effect on academic achievement, schedule exams at the beginning of the month, when federal benefits such as SNAP kick in and kids are more likely to be fed.
In December 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement addressing reports that 1 out of every 5 U.S. children lack access to enough food. AAP called for pediatricians to start asking two simple questions: within the last 12 months, did you worry about running out of food, or did you run out of food and lack money to buy more.
Hassink said the initiative is still in the implementation phase, but that doctors have been receptive and the main factor will be bridging connections between pediatricians and community resources.
"You can't go back and redevelop a brain," Hassink said. Food, she added, is really becoming chronic disease prevention.