Make fighting hunger a priority

More children need nutritional assistance, thanks to recession

June 01, 2010|By Maureen Black and David Paige

In the United States, hunger is a health problem. It cuts the chances that children can succeed when they get to school. And it affects more people than you think.

In today's America nearly 1 out of every 4 households with children is what experts call "food insecure" — or in terms we all understand, hungry. Although much of the attention from the recession of 2008, the worst in recent history, focused on national attempts at recovery, low-income families living on the margin often suffered the direct effects of the recession through layoffs, cutbacks and lack of resources. Too often, young children have had to pay the price of household food shortages, resulting in hunger.

Research confirms what we all learned from our grandparents: Children need healthy food to stay well, grow and develop, especially during the early years when their body and brain growth are most rapid. Data from Children's HealthWatch on more than 36,000 young children across the country (including more than 5,000 from Baltimore) show that hungry children are sicker, are more likely to need hospitalization, and show more signs of developmental delay than children who have regular meals.

A recent report by the Baltimore City Health Department highlights not only the race and income-based disparities that occur in adult health conditions, such as cardiovascular disorders, but also the challenges that families face in their homes. Concerns about adequate household food and energy — eating and heating — were second only to concerns about mice and rats. The origins of adult health disparities begin prior to birth, with elevated rates of prematurity and low birthweight. Hunger and poor health during early childhood are often the beginning of a pathway of health problems that can extend throughout life.

Ensuring adequate nutrition during pregnancy and infancy leads to better health throughout the lifespan, thereby reducing disparities. Preventing health problems is always easier than trying to cure them. Today's launch of "B-more for Healthy Babies," an initiative to ensure that Baltimore's babies are born healthy, full term, and ready to thrive in healthy families is a step in the right direction.

To reach President Barack Obama's goal of ending childhood hunger in the United States by 2015, the Senate has introduced the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, S.3307. This bill focuses on nutritional programs that are specifically designed to protect young children, such as WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Programs, and the school breakfast and lunch programs. WIC — formally, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — assists pregnant women, infants, and children through age 4.

By providing healthy, age-appropriate food, nutrition counseling and referrals, WIC has played a major role in promoting the health of our nation's children. In response to the economic recession, the demand for WIC has increased significantly, from 7.9 million recipients in 2004 to more than 9.2 million in 2009. More than half the nation's infants and one-quarter of children ages 1 through 4 receive WIC.

Children's young bodies and brains cannot wait for an economic recovery. Evidence from the Institute of Medicine makes it clear — WIC prevents low birthweight, prevents iron deficiency and promotes young children's health and development, preparing them to enter school ready to learn.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act would ensure that WIC continues to reach eligible pregnant women and young children. But the need for a healthful diet doesn't end once children reach kindergarten. The act also assures that other childhood nutrition programs are able to provide healthy food to children in child care and in school. What better investment is there to prevent adult health disparities and to secure our nation's future than investing in the health and well-being of our youngest citizens where they live, learn and play?

Congress has only a few weeks left on its legislative calendar to enact the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. It must make healthy eating for America's children a priority by supporting this important piece of legislation.

Maureen Black, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Her e-mail is mblack@peds.umaryland.edu. David Paige, M.D., is professor in the Department of Population, Family, and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His e-mail is dpaige@jhsph.edu.

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