One in three children in Yavapai County are "food insecure" because they don't know when they'll get their next meal.
These families are the working poor. They don't earn enough to pay for nutritious food after paying the bills, so they qualify for food stamps. And what foods are cheap and fill up empty tummies? Poor-quality, high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar, high-calorie, low-nutrition "filler foods" that make the hunger go away, but at the high cost of our children's health.
Not only is childhood development and school success hampered by a cheap filler-food diet, but both adult and child obesity-related illnesses are rampant and clogging our healthcare system.
Parents don't want to feed their kids junk. But their reality is working two minimum-wage jobs to earn enough to keep the electricity on. By the time they get home, they're exhausted. When a $5 pizza can be picked up on the way home to feed yourself and two kids, what would you choose? It's fast. It's food. It's affordable.
Check the price of fresh vegetables and chicken against a can of stew. $10 versus $1.50. A fast-food burger costs less than buying the beef, buns and condiments and preparing it yourself. For parents on the edge, it's about sanity and survival.
It's easy to demonize parents for feeding their kids fast food. But if it's cheap and there's no money for food after the rent is paid, what choice does a mom have if it's the difference between being hungry and feeling full?
The cold hard facts are that currently more than 50 million Americans are food insecure - they lack enough income to buy food, so they get food stamps. This tightly regulated federal program provides only $1.40 per meal, so even food stamps leave families struggling to feed themselves.
Poverty and hunger go hand in hand. Arizona has the second-highest poverty rate in the nation (Mississippi is first). Between 2000 and 2010, our poverty rate rose from 13.9 percent to 21.2 percent, a 52.5 percent increase, with nearly 40 percent of our families slipping into poverty. We rank seventh in the nation for having the highest level of food hardship. A third of those relying on food banks cannot earn enough to put healthy food on the table. And food banks rely on processed boxed or canned food.
Harvey Grady, executive director of Cornucopia Community Advocates, researched hunger in Yavapai County using data from three state agencies that funnel federal funds to those eligible, along with questionnaires sent to schools and nonprofits (read his report, "Ending Child Hunger in Yavapai County," at www.cornucopiacommunity.org/reports-a-news).
"We estimate that in Yavapai County, 30,000 people are food insecure, half of them children," Grady said.
United Way of Yavapai County is working with The Hunger Alliance, a collaboration of nonprofits, county agencies and community advocates, to create programs targeting food-insecure families. Out of this group's work, we'll figure out the best approach to reducing hunger in our county and then fund programs that will achieve this goal.
Established in 2009, UWYC's Community Impact Initiative is a strategy putting donations where they'll matter most. Our programs have at least three agencies working together so we can reduce the duplication of social services. Our initial 13 programs began with less than 30 agencies and, as of last year expanded to over 140, serving more than 35,000 people. That's community impact in action.
United Way's 2013-14 Community Impact programs will focus on four critical needs. Hunger tops the list. Without good nutrition, our kids can't grow up to be self-supporting Americans.
For more information, visit www.unitedwayyavapai.org.
Melanie Jacobson is executive director of United Way of Yavapai County.