It never occurred to Denise Williams that she would have difficulty feeding her children. A college graduate whose husband works as a tow-truck driver, she saw hunger as a simple problem with a common-sense solution.
"I used to think, if you can't feed your kids, you shouldn't have them," said Williams, a Baltimore resident who is struggling to feed her family of six on her husband's $19,000 annual salary. "Well, now I know, you do what you have to do, any way you can do it."
For Williams, her husband, Peter, and their four children, that means oatmeal for dinner and two-hour shopping trips in which they make tedious comparisons as they hunt for the best bargains. Clipping coupons is essential, Williams said.
The Williams' difficulties feeding their family are not that unusual, according to a survey released today on children and hunger in the United States. The survey, conducted by the Food Research and Action Center, concluded that one out of every eight children under age 12 in the United States is living in hunger.
Although Denise Williams did not participate in the study, she agreed to talk about her problems because local advocates for the poor said her efforts to feed her family illustrate the problems faced by many families with incomes comparable to hers.
Until January, the Williamses relied on the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Feeding Program, commonly known as WIC. But when Williams, her infant and 4-year-old twins came up for recertification for the program, only the infant was still eligible. WIC is primarily for pregnant women and children ages 3 and under. The family's monthly WIC food vouchers dropped from $150 to $50.
Williams, who has worked as a counselor in a shelter for battered women, stays at home in northeast Baltimore now because day care is so expensive. She budgets $75 a week for her family's food bills, but often she doesn't have that much to spend. In lean weeks, she said, she skips dinner and tells her children she's on a diet.
"We wouldn't do it if we didn't have kids," Williams said of her daily efforts to prepare cheap, nutritious meals. "If it were just me and my husband, we'd say to hell with it and eat macaroni and cheese every night. But you can't do that when you have kids."
The Williamses' $19,000 income places them at the high end of the income level of those surveyed for the Community Childhood Hunger Identification, an in-depth survey conducted of poor families in seven states. The study represents one of the first attempts to develop statistical data on hunger among children in the United States. The seven states surveyed were Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan and New York.
When researchers projected their findings in the seven states onto the nation as a whole, they concluded that one out of every eight children under age 12 in the United States is living in hunger.
"There doesn't need to be any more debate about whether kids are hungry in America, or whether there is a hunger problem," said Maryland Food Committee executive director Linda Eisenberg. "This is a carefully designed statistical study."
Eisenberg said the study indicated that the solutions to hunger already exist, in programs such as WIC and food stamps. The programs just need more money, she said.
In the survey, researchers asked households at 185 percent of the poverty level or lower eight questions about their experiences with hunger in the past year.
Questions included whether meals were skipped to save money and if children ever went to bed hungry. Families who answered yes to five or more questions were considered hungry, while families answering yes to one to four questions were said to be at risk for hunger.
The families at the high end of the survey's income limit were like the Williamses -- earning just enough to be ineligible for welfare and food stamps, but still relying on WIC, food banks or soup kitchens to feed themselves.
Using a complex statistical method, the survey determined that 12 percent of all families with children under age 12 nationwide experience hunger. Twenty-eight percent of such families are either hungry or at risk for hunger, the researchers found.
The results then were extrapolated to calculate the hunger rates in individual states. In Maryland, the center projected that there are 125,762 children under age 12 who are hungry or at risk for hunger.
Other findings included:
* In addition to the 5.5 million hungry children in the nation, there are 6 million who are at risk of hunger because of food shortages within their families.
* Hungry children are more likely to suffer a variety of health problems -- weight loss, fatigue, irritability, ear infections, colds, headaches and dizziness -- than non-hungry children.
* In more than 90 percent of the households surveyed, families reported that at times they did not have enough money for food. Adults coped by cutting back or skipping meals, so their children could have more. But 88 percent of the children surveyed ate less than they should, and one-third had gone to bed hungry.
* The food shortages were chronic, stretching back over several months in most households.
In connection with the survey, the Maryland Food Committee, a non-profit agency involved in a variety of food programs, asked clients like Williams if they would discuss their experiences with hunger. Those who came forward included not only mothers on welfare, but people who began having financial difficulties after being laid off or suffering a death in the family.