By Leslee Sandberg
I recently heard a story from a local community action person that nearly broke my heart. She was visiting a local elementary school and a child came in sick. When his parents were called to come and get him, he cried. He asked if he could please wait until after lunch, knowing there was no food to eat at home.
Over a 40-year career in education, I have learned and observed a lot on the effects of hunger and children’s learning. I know that brain development is critical in the early years and good nutrition is critical to that development. I know that children who come to school hungry are less likely to be able to concentrate. This is a scary observation when in the elementary grades children learn to read. Reading may be the single most important skill leading to success in school.
Amanda Pieper, director of the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program’s food reservoir, reports that one in five elementary school children in the HACAP service area go to bed hungry at least once a week. That translates into an average of four to five children per classroom in our seven-county area. Approximately half of children under age 18 qualify for free/reduced lunch in Linn, Johnson and Jones counties.
Chris Carman, director of the Linn County Child Development Center, has observed some families who are doubled up with friends and relatives in order to cut expenses and stretch their paychecks. He has seen parents who find employment (or switch jobs), and until the first paycheck comes (sometimes three to four weeks, depending on how the pay periods fall) run short on food. Children come into the Child Development Center extra hungry on Mondays, after a weekend at home with limited food supplies. The center routinely goes beyond required portion sizes at most meals in order to meet children’s hunger.
Fortunately, there are structures in place that do make a difference. According to the Census, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) lifted 5.7 million people out of poverty in 2011. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) lifted 3.9 million people out of poverty. These programs work. We must do all we can to protect and strengthen them.
Unfortunately, Congress seems determined to do just the opposite. Both the House and Senate have proposed significant cuts to SNAP and if Congress fails to act before the end of the year, low and middle income families will see their taxes go up as necessary improvements to the EITC and Child Tax Credit (CTC) expire.
We cannot let this happen. Children should not go to bed hungry. They should not go to school hungry. We must take care of these most vulnerable members of our human community.
What can you do? Take action!
l Contact Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley and Reps. Dave Loebsack and Bruce Braley to urge them not to raise taxes on low-income working families. Tell them to make the expiring improvements to the EITC and CTC permanent instead.
l Tell our members of Congress to protect hungry families by opposing reckless cuts to SNAP.
l Support local food pantries.
l Encourage community and school gardens to feed hungry families with nutritious food.
l Get involved with HACAP’s Operation Backpack Program (www.hacap.org)
l Learn about support for hungry children in your own neighborhood or community. Start something if there isn’t anything in place!
l Check out www.RESULTS.org for more information on how to advocate for children!
Children are our future. Poverty among young children carries consequences far beyond their childhood in everything from educational outcomes and worker productivity to long-term health costs.
Leslee Sandberg of Cedar Rapids is a retired educator. She directs a summer reading camp at Coe College and is a member of RESULTS, a grass-roots organization working against poverty. Comments: LesleeDS@aol.com