Originally Published: September 15, 2014 6 a.m.
For most of us who grew up in this land of plenty, it is hard to imagine how it would feel to go to bed at night hungry and to not know if there would be any food tomorrow. How hard would it be to pay attention in school when you are hungry?
Believe it or not, at least 27 percent of Arizona children may have this experience on a fairly regular basis. The most recent statistics show Arizona ranks 47th overall in the U.S. for the economic well being of its children. No less than 41 percent of all students in PUSD qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program, 62 percent in HUSD and 71 percent in Chino Valley. Children are eligible for free school meals when their households' income level is 130 percent of the poverty level.
The results of a plethora of studies on children and poverty are well known. And, according to the Arizona Partnership to End Childhood Hunger, another child is born into poverty in our state every half hour. All the data agree that children who experience even occasional hunger because of limited resources have more health problems than kids who never go hungry, and they do worse in school, are more aggressive, and tend to have anxiety, emotional problems, and poor self-esteem. Nutritional deficiencies in infants and toddlers can interfere with brain development, and such cognitive deficits can never be remediated sufficiently to give those children a chance at breaking the cycle of poverty as adults.
Ron Barnes' Hungry Kids Project, that is funded through grants and donations, has been working to provide nutritious meals for children on the weekends during the school year. In 2012, they fed 142 kids in Prescott, 100 in the Humboldt district, and 100 in Chino Valley. They would have doubled those numbers if they had had the resources. Donations may be made to each school district's educational foundation with a note in the check memo line specifying the Hungry Kids Project.
Open Door delivers food bags to about 520 preschool children through the Weekend Family Food Program during the school year and has been doing so since 2009. Previously available funds from First Things First have dried up, so the program is struggling. Much-needed donations may be sent to Open Door and earmarked for the Weekend Family Food Program.
Arizona is also facing a literacy crisis in early-childhood education, primarily due to a paucity of books and other language experiences in disadvantaged youngsters' homes. Early intervention is vital to future success for these children. Unfortunately, Head Start and publicly funded preschool programs were hit hard by federal sequester cuts which took about $9.5 million from Arizona childcare and preschools. Arizona no longer funds early-childhood education, though 39 other states do. Lawmakers imposed a waiting list for the state's childcare subsidy program five years ago. Since then, an estimated 33,000 eligible children have been denied subsidies.
Some officials have cited previous budget cuts that slashed child-care subsidies and other programs for struggling families during the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath for increasing strains on Arizona's child-welfare system. Reports of abuse and neglect have strained available resources along with a sobering 40 percent increase of youngsters in foster care, as documented by the Arizona Republic. In light of the societal consequences, these appear to have been very costly cuts indeed.
Although individual programs have made valiant efforts to help children in need, the eradication of childhood hunger and poverty needs to become a statewide priority.
Kris Holt has taught family and child development at Utah State University and is a member of the Church and Society Comm. at Prescott United Methodist Church.