November 26th, 2008
06:35 PM ET

The children are hungry

Impact Your World: The global food market’s shelves are getting bare and hunger activists say it will get worse. As the nation marks World Hunger Relief Week, more people are asking: Why are so many people starving and what, if anything, can be done to eradicate hunger? Learn how you can help

Erica Hill | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Thanksgiving is as tied to food drives as it is to turkeys and football. It is the kick-off of the holiday season, when we’re reminded to remember those less fortunate with a can of green beans or a paper stocking at the supermarket. This year, your neighbors need more. And they need it beyond tomorrow.

The people in this country who don’t have enough to eat are your neighbors and colleagues. They may not look like they’re hungry, but hunger doesn’t have a certain look. It doesn’t target one area of the country, one type of person or one socio-economic group. Hunger does not discriminate, and that is what makes the growing number of hungry Americans all the more disturbing.

Last year, 36.2 million Americans were “food insecure” – an official term that sounds generic and clunky, but its meaning is simple: 36.2 million adults and children struggled to find enough to eat. These are parents who may skip meals to feed their children instead, or stretch one meal over a day or even more than one day, because it’s not clear where the next meal will come from. This is more than 12 percent of the population. And when you break down the numbers for children, your heart will break: the number of hungry children in the US rose 50 percent in 2007.

Keep in mind, these numbers are from 2007 – every one I have spoken to since the USDA released the figures last week tells me this year’s numbers will be far worse, and they don’t expect things to improve in 2009. Why? Because in 2007, the economic crisis hadn’t yet begun; people were struggling, but the downturn didn’t dominate the news every night. Banks still had money. The government wasn’t signing off on hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts. People weren’t looking over their shoulder, worried someone from HR was about to tap them on the shoulder, hand them a box and ask them to please clean out their desk.

“If the data we are reviewing today reflected food insecurity data from the last 12 months, it would be even more shocking,” said Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest), in response to the report. The Food Bank for New York City tells me the situation for children in NY has been steadily getting worse since 2004, and they expect the 2008 financial crisis will hit with remarkable intensity. They are seeing fewer donations, smaller donations, and an incredible increase in need. It’s a situation the Community Food Bank of New Jersey knows all too well, one their director of market development, Richard Uniacke, called a “perfect storm.” And it is the children who are the most vulnerable when it comes to food insecurity.

“These kids need food, these kids need school supplies, these kids need warm clothing,” Uniacke told me. “They didn’t ask to be in that situation, they didn’t make the terrible choices that put them there.”

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey is one of several around the country that has specific programs targeting children, including the BackPack Program. According to Feeding America, schools in 41 states and the District of Columbia participate in the BackPack Program. As many as 70,000 children are sent home from school on Fridays with enough food to get them through the weekend, nutritious meals they need to keep them focused when they get back to school Monday morning. These back packs and their contents are life-changing.

“It makes a big difference. We see the happy faces when they leave here, and the happy faces when they come back on Monday. Many faces we didn’t see with smiles in the past,” said James Montemurro, principal of Lincoln Elementary School in Newark, NJ. Nearly a third of his students participate in the BackPack Program, and the school is already seeing twice the demand for the program over last year’s number. Those happy faces, according to Montemurro, are directly tied to a full stomach.

“(Before) they were frustrated, they had rough weekends, work wasn’t done. That has changed. It means so much. It just makes our learning environment, our school more productive.”

Filling these backpacks every week costs about four dollars per bag. For four dollars, children can concentrate on schoolwork because they don’t worry about where their next meal is coming from. In addition to the security these bags provide, there is a sense of accomplishment, a feeling that they are helping their family. They can stop worrying so much about their parents’ struggle to feed them, pay the rent and the electricity.

But this small piece of security is also vulnerable. “My biggest concern going into the back pack distribution was our ability as a Food Bank to provide for the BackPack Program,” Uniacke said. “I'm very concerned that if things take a downturn, we're going to have to start cutting back.”

How you can help:
NJ Community Food Bank
Feeding America

Filed under: Erica Hill • Erica's News Note
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. sudzie Canada

    Hi Erica
    It is a sad day when bailouts and corporate take front row over the millions of hungry people out there. I would be willing to bet that not one CEO of the Banks and Car makers gives a hoot about this disturbing statistic. In my opinion they are greedy and self serving. Before these people get a nickel they should be made to endure for 1 year what some people endure year after year with no support..

    January 28, 2009 at 5:32 pm |
  2. Maria Isabel, RJ, Brazil

    Hi, Erica!

    I’m in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, and here this is a constant problem, old and very common, which is regrettable.

    The government created a program called "Zero Hunger". The "Zero Hunger" is a strategy driven by the government to ensure the human right to adequate food to people with difficulties in access to food. This strategy is in promoting food security and nutrition seeking inclusion and achievement of the citizenship of the population most vulnerable to hunger.
    The concept is very good, but it is a pity that in practice, does not reach to all those in need.
    We ask: what is the future of these children? What is the future of a country where its citizens grown this way?
    I think we should do whatever is within our reach. Even one little thing, or even helping a few. If each person gives a small contribution, maybe we will minimize the consequences (very bad) for these children.

    January 6, 2009 at 9:23 am |
  3. Deena


    Thanks for remiding us of how good we have it relative to others we easily forget are going through tough times. Some of us have been in and out of tough times and having lived in abundance as well as with nothing, this brings home memories of joy and hardship.

    Thank you for reminding me to think of others and for your fantastic work as a Journalist, co-anchor at CNN and for showing compassion. You are an impressive communicator and human being.


    December 6, 2008 at 12:22 am |
  4. jim thorpe

    These admirable programs such as the Food Banks have always depended on the widespread largess of the middle class, who I believe it has been documented, give a larger share of their income to charity than the rich. Also they are more widely distributed than the super rich and therefore tend to give locally thus meeting more widespread needs.
    The economy will recover most quickly if this is addressed in any stimulus program. We need help in every nook and cranny of this country.
    One way to do that would be to implement a 6 month moratorium on withholding tax payments and estimated tax payments to the federal government, thus quickly putting additional money into the pockets of every working American-their own money. I guarantee you some of that money will find it's way into programs for the needy. And better yet a lot of it will be spent locally and create jobs for those in need.
    We are talking billions of dollars spread out through the economy in the fairest way I can think of. And it will give the new administration time to implement its tax policies.
    Why isn't anyone in the media talking about such a plan?

    November 26, 2008 at 7:20 pm |
  5. Alexander

    Erica, good evening. Unfortunately, not everyone will be viewing Thanksgiving dinner the same way you and I will be. What is most sobering about this article is that as the economic woes strengthen, the number of donations decreases as a result to the economic downturn, and a catch-22 begins. The harder the economy, the more people need more food, and the less people can actually donate to these food banks, etc., so that those in need of food can eat. As the economy worsens, people give less because they have less and as a consequence of this catch-22 pattern, those in need of those donations do with even less when they need it most. Very insightful article, Erica, and as always, glad you could share this type of topic. Hope your evening is going wonderfully. : )

    November 26, 2008 at 7:06 pm |
  6. Teresa, OH

    “I’m very concerned that if things take a downturn, we’re going to have to start cutting back.” IF things take a downturn?

    It's always the innocents that feel the backlash and suffer the most.

    Thank you to the BackPack Program and all that you do. Thanks, Erica, for bringing this to our attention. I, for one, didnt realize the stats were that horrible.

    November 26, 2008 at 7:02 pm |

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