For millions of American children, school lunch is often their best – and sometimes – only real meal of the day. According to Feeding America, 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households in 2011. The numbers can tell the scope, but the not very painful effects of food insecurity for children.
School nutrition professionals know that Mondays and Fridays are often the worst days of the week for food insecure children. On Monday morning, many children really are “starving” after a weekend without enough food to fill their stomachs well. At school breakfast on Monday morning, children can seem insatiable and want more than one serving. How would you feel after a weekend without enough to eat?
On Friday’s school lunch, food insecure children may tend to overeat and/or to hoard food that they can scavenge from other student’s trays. This not bad behavior or a hunger game. It is a very real and natural response to being deprived of food. It is the body’s response to being chronically underfed, as documented in Ansel Keyes classic study of starvation in healthy young men.
We do not completely understand the complex interactions of food insecurity, obesity and undernutrition, especially in their effect on children. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) offers an excellent summary of the key factors that make low-income and food insecure families more vulnerable to overweight and obesity, including:
- Cycles of food deprivation and overeating
- Lack of access to healthy, affordable foods
- Fewer opportunities for physical activity
- High levels of stress
- Limited access to health care
While we have a national discussion about the merits of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and the the 2012 Nutrition Standards for School Meals, we must never forget those students who are truly hungry – not just YouTube sensations because they didn’t approve of their new food options in the cafeteria. Whether you call it childhood hunger or family food insecurity, this is a real and tragic problem in our country.
In terms of what we can do, there is no better role model than Senator George McGovern, who passed away today after a decades of public service. We can each look around our own communities and ask a simple question: What is the most effective thing that I can do to end hunger?