Hunger is one of the quieter threats posed by a recession, but it can have a profound impact on babies and toddlers, robbing them of critical buildings blocks at a time when their brains are growing the fastest.
Unfortunately, this threat appears to be rising because the number of hungry families with children in Washington and across the nation is increasing.
The percentage of households without enough food soared to 14.6 percent in 2008 from 11.1 percent in 2007, the U.S. Agriculture Department reported last month. In Washington, 8.5 percent of households with kids worried about getting enough food on the table last year.
Hunger is a huge early learning issue because if babies, toddlers and preschoolers don’t get enough good food to eat they face a number of risks. They are at a higher risk of getting sick, developing anemia, which leads to fatigue and makes it harder to focus and even obesity, according to Michelle Terry, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s’ Hospital. All of these problems could lead to more missed school days and poorer performance in school.
“It has a huge impact of the cognitive development and it is necessary to academic achievement,” Terry said in an interview. “And you can’t focus when you are hungry.”
The Great Recession is certainly making this problem worse. During the first six months of 2009 researchers reported one in five Philadelphia homes with a toddle
r or baby lacked sufficient food, The Washington Post reported last week.
While there is not that level of data for Seattle, anecdotal evidence suggests a similar problem. For example, there has been a steady increase in demand for the baby program at Northwest Harvest, one of the region’s biggest food bank providers, according to the group’s director of communications, Claire Acey.
This means preschool and pre-kindergarten teachers are likely facing a bigger challenge as they prepare their students for kindergarten.
“Any kind of instability or insecurity during these times affects brain development; in addition, if young brains and bodies have inadequate fuel, the damage
escalates. Childhood hunger is linked with increased sickness, school absences in older children, and can result in either aggression or lethargy, behavior that inhibits normal social development,” Linda Stone, senior food policy coordinator for the Seattle-based Children’s Alliance, wrote in an email.
There are steps parents and teachers can take to address childhood hunger.
For example, December is a big month for Northwest Harvest, and it didn’t hit its budget targets last month. So the holidays are a great time to donate nutritious food that kids like to eat to local food banks.
·“Child hunger an increasingly complex problem: Child hunger, called the ‘silent epidemic,’ is an increasingly complex problem” – The Washington Post, 12/12/09.