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Childhood hunger in Colorado on the rise

One thing you can say about a kid who goes to bed hungry is that he will wake up the same way. Odds are he’ll go to school hungry as well. Repeat that cycle a few times a week and you’ve got a problem. Experts say it is a problem that can be solved, even though it hasn’t been yet.

“We have a pretty severe childhood hunger problem in Colorado, and it is on the rise,” said Katherine Moos, nutrition director of Hunger Free Colorado.

She said a recent survey conducted by Gallup indicates that one fourth of Colorado families with children sometimes don’t have enough food.

There are programs to help, but Moos says they are underutilized. She says, for instance, that less than half of eligible Coloradans receive food stamps. Also, less than 40 percent of the families that take advantage of free or reduced price school lunches also use the program for breakfast.

Only 7 percent of those same families participate in programs that make meals for kids available in the summer. In some cases that is because those meals aren’t yet available everywhere.

“These programs keep kids healthy,” she said, noting that a lot of times the free meals also serve an educational purpose by showing kids what a balanced meal looks like.

She said there have been huge increases over the past few years in the number of families served in Colorado, but that there is still a long way to go.

A study just released by the United States Department of Agriculture shows the extent of the problem on a national basis, but doesn’t break it down by state.

From the study:

An estimated 85.5 percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2010, meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The remaining households (14.5 percent) were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.4 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food. The prevalence rate of very low food security declined from 5.7 percent in 2009, while the change in food insecurity overall (from 14.7 percent in 2009) was not statistically significant. The typical food-secure household spent 27 percent more on food than the typical food-insecure household of the same size and household composition. Fifty-nine percent of all food-insecure households participated in one or more of the three largest Federal food and nutrition assistance programs during the month prior to the 2010 survey.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper this month signed an executive order to continue the No Kid Hungry Colorado campaign (formerly the Colorado Campaign to End Childhood Hunger by 2015) at a Hunger Free Colorado event.

The campaign, initiated by former Gov. Bill Ritter and Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien in 2009, works to increase the number of children receiving nutritious meals in school breakfast and summer lunch programs while developing a comprehensive plan to end childhood hunger in Colorado by 2015.

“Many families have been hit hard by the economic downturn,” Hickenlooper said in a press release. “School breakfast programs help ensure children have access to nutritious foods so they can study hard in school, grow strong and lead active lives. The No Kid Hungry Colorado campaign is making certain those who falls on hard times know about these programs and that no child in Colorado goes hungry.”

Colorado’s toll-free Hunger Free Hotline, 855-855-4626, is staffed by people fluent in English and Spanish who can guide people to food resources in any part of the state.

Moos said that in any school where at least half the kids are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, all the kids eat free. This is important because it removes the stigma that is sometimes attached to poverty or hunger, she said.

“Nobody is singled out. Everybody just eats breakfast,” she said. “A lot of kids would rather be hungry than identify themselves as poor and hungry. The best programs are ones where kids don’t have to ask for food.”

She said she and others struggle with feeding kids in higher income school districts. “Often a poorer family will choice-in to a wealthier school district but then struggle because services are not as obviously available. We work a lot to refine our strategy to reach those kids. The stigma of hunger, of needing help is something we run up against. We need to rethink the culture around this.”

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