Hunger and poor nutrition contribute to health problems and hinder the viability of people at all ages. In its most recent study of food insecurity in America, the USDA determined that one in seven (or 14.7%) of Washington’s households are “food insecure,” meaning they lack the resources to ensure that all family members will not go hungry. Nearly 70% (523,000 people) of the people we serve throughout our 17 county service area are living at, or below, the federal poverty level. Further:
• In Washington State, 1 in 4 children live in families that struggle to put food on the table on a regular basis. Malnutrition in children causes behavior problems in school, problematic interactions with peers, and in adolescence it can result in depression, higher drop-out rates, and even suicidal ideation.
• Nutritious staples like dairy, vegetables, and meat are not affordable for our clientele: this year the cost of milk is up 4%; vegetables prices have increased by 10%; and meat is up more than 12%. This forces our low-income residents to purchase cheap, calorie-dense, processed foods with little nutritional substance leading to the all-too-common paradox of being undernourished, yet overweight.
• Many adults in Western Washington are struggling to put on the table for their families because of layoffs from the recession, low wages, and the rising cost of food. As a result, 23% of adult food bank clients report sacrificing meals for a whole day.
• Federal nutrition programs – like SNAP (or food stamps), the school breakfast and lunch program and the WIC or Women Infant and Children program have always been seen as the front lines of support against hunger for low income people. But now, the recession has changed all of that. Those that are now standing in line at the food bank used to be donors to the food bank. But then they lost their job, their unemployment benefits ran out. After that they ran through their savings, and then their 401K. We’ve talked to so many who have sold their most valuable possessionsc – cars, wedding rings, family heirlooms. A recent study by Feeding America called “Map the Meal Gap” now shows us that thirty-seven percent of hungry Washingtonians now have incomes just above the eligibility threshold to qualify for federal aid so the emergency food network and Food Lifeline are their last hope for food and household provisions. Just four short years ago, only 4% of our clients reported their incomes to be above the eligibility threshold for these programs.
The tiniest children, those in their first years of life, are amongst the most fragile. Malnutrition for even a short period of time can lead to significant problems growing and gaining weight or height. These babies then have shortened attention spans, an increased risk of illness and emotional problems. Perhaps even more disturbing is that the damage caused in these early years of life when the brain is forming, such as delayed learning and language skills and impaired motor skills, can affect these children for the rest of their lives.
Last year in North and East King County 1,744 infants were served by your community food banks. These infants made up 7% of the food bank client population.
During the next stage, school age kids who do not have access to a filling breakfast or who went to bed hungry the night before, have the obvious challenge of trying to focus and learn. Distracted by hunger, they are also more likely to act up in class and be marked as a trouble-maker. Without the fuel to engage, their cognitive abilities deteriorate, causing them to perform poorly on tests, be more likely to fail a grade, be held back, and eventually drop out. In fact, children from families without consistent access to food are 1.6 times more likely to miss school, nearly 2 times more likely to be suspended, and 1.44 times more likely to repeat a grade.
What often passes as missing school from something that sounds like a normal illness is often related to a lack of adequate nutritious food. Children from food insecure families are nearly 2 times more likely to have frequent headache or stomach aches, and 3 times more likely to have poorer overall health than the other children in their class.
Last year in North and East King County, 9,508 children received food from a food bank, making up 35% of the food bank client population.
As these children become adults, they will be more likely to have poor judgment and poor job performance. Deprived of adequate food, people’s bodies direct their limited energy to the most important functions. Top priority for the body is maintaining critical organ function. If there is enough energy to keep the organs going, the second priority is body health, such as maintaining normal height and weight. The final priority, seen by the body as dispensable, is the ability to interact with the outside world and making those connections that are vital to our existence.
Without enough food to sustain them throughout the day, adults are able to give less energy to their work, likely leading to a more limited ability to earn over their lifetime. Just as hungry children may be marked as trouble-makers, adults with insufficient access to food may be assumed to be lazy, uneducated or sickly. In poor health, they may miss work more often, causing them to be overlooked for promotions, and threatening their chances for secure and stable employment.
Last year in North and East King County 13,170 adults visited their community food bank, representing 48% of the client population.
As we age, food insecurity contributes to many seniors becoming either becoming sick, or not being able to get well. Far too many seniors choose each month between putting food on the table or filling a prescription. Many seniors over the age of 65 suffer from debilitating medical conditions, lack mobility, and do not have the means to support their daily dietary needs. Among the elderly and disabled, hunger can cause chronic health problems for these already fragile individuals, and complicate existing medical conditions.
Last year in North and East King County, 3,876 seniors were served by your community food banks, representing 10% of the client population.
The good news is that with food, each of these diseases, each of these diagnoses, each of these foregone conclusions are preventable. These children, families, and individuals who have been hit hard by the recent recession or perhaps by a lifetime of struggles, need our help and the tools we have at our disposal to make a difference.
Our collective mission is to make sure that this recession does not cause a lifetime of damage to a generation who is caught in the crossfires of our economy. This investment in assisting our community members today is an investment in our community for the future.
Almost 15% – one in 7 – of our neighbors in Western Washington one step behind, or out of the game entirely, when it comes to getting an education, securing employment and maintaining work performance. The importance of nutritious food is more than just one meal in one moment. Our work is clear – for these individuals, we must create a community that provides the assurance that they will have enough to eat today. That they will have enough to eat tomorrow. Our work is this work – it is building access to three healthy meals a day, day after day, to create a healthy, strong, and successful future for all those struggling with hunger today.