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  Lisa Scales, chief executive officer for Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank

Childhood Hunger Has a High Cost – for Everyone
By Nancy Kennedy

Nearly 14 million children in the U. S. are afflicted with a condition that causes short and long term adverse consequences to their physical and emotional health, school performance and behavior. At its onset, this condition causes abdominal pain, headaches, lightheadedness and low blood sugar; eventually, it leads to loss of muscle mass and fat stores, and subsequent low energy and stamina. Children who experience it feel fatigued and stressed; they become anxious and depressed. Their immune systems are compromised, so that they acquire infections easily, leading to frequent emergency room visits and hospital admissions. They are typically underweight and may have growth delays that lead to weak bones and short stature. The condition is associated with anemia and vitamin deficiencies that can cause vision loss and other long term complications.

Children who suffer with this condition perform poorly in school. The condition impacts brain development, impairing the brain's capacity for processing information. School age children with this condition have excessive absenteeism and are twice as likely to have ADHD or to require special education. Their poor academic performance can have a lifelong impact, affecting the ability to develop skills, and obtain and hold jobs.

This condition hurts, and it leaves scars. It has a profound impact on every aspect of the lives of affected American children, and it's entirely preventable. What is it? It's called hunger.

"Hunger is devastating for children," says Lisa Scales, chief executive officer for Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which serves 120,000 people each month, a third of whom are under age 18. "It can do permanent damage. There's a strong connection between nutrition and child development. The child's health and education are affected; teachers tell us that hungry children cannot pay attention in school and as a result, they can't learn. This has a lifetime effect: education is the key to employment and the key to education is the ability to focus in school. Hungry children become adults who are not prepared for the workforce; they are less likely to become healthy adults."

Hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity represent a major public health challenge. True hunger – not the simple rumblings of an empty stomach when it's an hour until lunchtime – means not getting enough food, nutritious food, or consistent meals; it means repeated episodes of severe, unrelieved hunger. Food insecurity - limited or uncertain access to adequate food, or never quite knowing if there is going to be food in the household -is due to economic or social factors. Malnutrition, a consequence of hunger, means an absence of essential nutrients the body needs for healthy functioning and vitality. When experienced by children, these things have far-reaching consequences.

Scales says that for many children, this is a matter of day-to-day survival. "Hunger is a physical sensation; it's uncomfortable and can make you feel sick. But food insecurity takes a huge emotional toll. It's extremely stressful to not know if there will be food, and that stress creates disease. "

There are misconceptions about hunger in America, Scales explains. "There's a belief that everyone receiving food assistance is unemployed and doesn't want to work. The truth is that fully one-third of the households the Food Bank serves have a full time wage earner, but the wages are too low to meet their needs. Many families cycle on and off, coming to food pantries when they need to. Every day, parents make difficult choices in order to feed their children, and often that means doing without food themselves."The nation's "safety net" of food assistance programs, such as SNAP and the National School Lunch Program, are the first line of defense against hunger and food insecurity, but the economic challenges facing families in 2013 mean that many must turn to food pantries for assistance.

In southwestern Pennsylvania, half of those served by the Food Bank are children and seniors, the two most vulnerable populations. The Food Bank is committed to meeting their emergency food needs, but Scales says the organization's mission goes further than that. "We want to also shorten the lines at food pantries, so we have developed education and advocacy programs. The Food Bank wants ultimately to develop healthy communities with healthy, active people in those communities." Feeding America, a network of the nation's food banks, has issued a report, "Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on Our Nation," which states that childhood hunger is everyone's problem, with implications for public health, the economy and workforce, and educational system.

And still, children are hungry. In Pennsylvania, 20 percent of children are "food insecure" and 19 percent live in poverty. Almost half of SNAP recipients in Pennsylvania are children. "At the Food bank, we believe that no child should ever go to bed hungry," says Scales. "For a child to reach his or her full potential in life, consistent, high-quality food is essential. Childhood is the foundation of life and food is a building block of the child's future."

To donate to the Food Bank, to volunteer, or to learn more about hunger and food insecurity in the Pittsburgh region, visit www.pittsburghfoodbank.com. To learn more about childhood hunger, visit www.feedingamerica.org.

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