Summer is nearly upon us in the Northern Hemisphere, in all its glory. Just a couple short weeks remain until the solstice, when the day will hit maximum length, and already the weather is warm and temperate (at least for some of us), warm enough to coax us into rivers and lakes, to convince us to go hiking and kayaking, to make the thought of lying in a hammock in the yard with a book alluring. Summer for me is always a nostalgic period, as I think back on childhood, when summer was a time of freedom and happiness, liberation from the responsibilities of school; as a small child it was going to the beach with my father, as a teen it was attending parties and staying out late at the coffeehouse with friends.
Yet, not all adults have such happy memories of summer, for summer can be a precarious period for low-income children. Kids who rely on free and reduced lunch programs for nutrition face a big problem during the summer months, when school is out and they are not getting food. Summer can turn into a period of suffering when it should be one of play and pure enjoyment of life. Instead, children are trapped in a system that turns them into victims.
While I grew up poor, my father took great lengths to ensure that I never knew the pinch of hunger. Though I qualified for free and reduced lunch, those programs weren’t my sole source of sustenance and in fact I rarely ate school lunch, preferring leftovers from the night before or something assembled from the fridge to the revolting offerings in the cafeteria. I was, in that sense at least, very lucky: I could choose what kind of food I could eat, could afford to turn up my nose at the industrial food crammed down the throats of my more impoverished classmates who didn’t have that option, who had to take the discards and bycuts and everything else served to children and called ‘food’ by the government.
One in five children in the United States lives in a household with food insecurity, according to No Kid Hungry, which also notes that six out of seven children who qualify for free and reduced lunch in the US receive no food assistance in the summer months. While the National School Lunch Program and the Summer Food Service Program aim to reach out to kids who need nutritional support in the summer, their efforts aren’t going as far as they need to, and kids are suffering as a result.
One significant reason why such programs aren’t reaching as many kids as they need to is the recession: thanks to the cuts from Congress, programs relying on government funding are struggling to feed children in need. Paired with other cuts to food assistance, the results are brutal for kids, and deeply hypocritical in the face of campaigns like the First Lady’s push for better nutrition. Childhood hunger is a pressing issue, and yet it’s not taken seriously by the officials with the ability to do something about it, leaving children in an extremely vulnerable state during the summer months.
Hunger changes you, emotionally and physically. It can put people at risk of a number of significant health problems, especially in early childhood, when malnutrition can interfere with musculoskeletal development as well as neurological development. Starving children in the summer months by not providing them with nutrition assistance is a recipe for disaster, and something that will also cause profound psychological harm. Children who have grown up with food insecurity in their lives can experience lifelong damage as adults.
The United States has ample food supplies, with more than enough to feed its residents. It also has ample funds to help people access and maintain food security, but hasn’t chosen to dedicate resources to this. It’s a telling statement about the government’s priorities. Even as residents in the US are confronted with charity appeals to help starving children around the world, many aren’t aware of the depth of hunger faced by children within the borders of their own nation; because hunger tends to be a silent, unspoken evil, as poverty is a subject of deep shame in the US and parents who can’t feed their children may struggle when it comes to asking for help, speaking out, or challenging a system that allocates resources in a way that is grossly unfair.
Hunger is not egalitarian, either. It disproportionately targets low-income households, particularly those at and below the poverty line, along with households of colour, especially Black and Latino households. It causes health problems in very specific minority communities, which is one of the reasons society at large has been able to afford to ignore it; hunger is treated as a problem that affects the Other, and thus as something that the white, monied majority doesn’t need to fear. This attitude betrays the entrenched nature of both racism and classism in the US, and it also shows the limited view many people in positions of power have when it comes to comprehending how poverty and hunger work.
While many think themselves above poverty and able to hold their own in a world filled with inequality, poverty can strike when least expected, devastating families who thought themselves financially secure, with access to a safety net that would help them if they fell. The recession clearly didn’t teach that lesson convincingly enough, instead only reinforcing the bootstrapping mentality in the heads of many people determined to avoid a confrontation with the realities of the world. Yet, digging harder and deeper doesn’t erase the truth of a world in which children are starving in the summer — and yours could be next.
Farm stand photo by Julie Rybarczyk, Flickr.