November begins a season of celebrations for most Americans, and many of the holidays we'll celebrate over the next few months center on traditional foods and special meals.
For most families, Thanksgiving especially means having tables and stomachs filled to overflowing. But some Americans won't have the privilege of complaining about "too much" food at Thanksgiving or any other time this year.
America's Second Harvest says in 2004 that 38.2 million people lived in food-insecure households, including 13.9 million children. And the number of Americans and households who are food insecure and hungry is rising. For many of these families, though, help is out there.
The food stamp program is the cornerstone of the federal food assistance programs. As the nation's largest nutrition program, it is the first line of defense against hunger. More than 25 million people receive food stamps throughout the country, and more working families and immigrants than ever before may qualify. But not everyone who needs help is receiving these benefits. In New York City alone, more than 1 million residents participate in the food stamp program, but another 500,000 who are eligible don't participate.
Other programs also can help, and often target hungry children. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, is a nutrition program for low-income families that reduces the incidence of low-birthweight babies, and ensures that children up to their fifth birthday continue to thrive. The program is free and has no immigration restrictions. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants under age 1, and children under age 5 who are at medical or nutritional risk are eligible.
Hungry children also do not learn well. Millions of school-age children can benefit from the school breakfast and lunch programs. Studies show children who eat breakfast daily do better in school on tests, attendance, punctuality and behavior.
Schools across the country can serve breakfast; since 2003, New York City's public school breakfast program has been free to all students, regardless of family income. For many students, school lunch may be the only solid meal of the day, and the national school lunch program provides reimbursement for lunches served to children in public, parochial and private schools. All students are eligible, regardless of income, residency or citizenship status. The New York City Department of Education is constantly improving taste and nutritional quality to encourage more students to participate in these programs, using such methods as adding vegetable and fruit salad bars and deli bars where students create their own sandwiches.
Hunger does not stop when school ends in June, so help is also available for children when they're not in school. The Summer Food Service Program is one of the best-kept secrets in America. It reimburses program sponsors for meals served to children during school vacation times. In New York City, for example, children can get free breakfast and lunch at public school sites in all low-income neighborhoods.
Some housing projects, parks, pools and community groups also provide meals. All children from infants up to their 19th birthday are eligible with no forms to fill out or documentation needed. School districts and nonprofits all across America could be taking advantage of this 100 percent federally funded program.
Churches, community centers and schools that sponsor Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools sites in the summer use this important program. But millions more children could benefit, and jobs could be created. Finally, eligible children in early child-care programs can get free breakfast, lunch and snacks through the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which also reimburses after-school programs for snacks and suppers.
All of these programs are key threads in our nation's safety net to help keep children from going hungry. But so many children and families are still falling through the cracks. If all eligible families knew about and participated in all available food programs, they would have more money left over each month to pay for critical things such as rent, utilities, clothing and other essentials. More outreach and increased enrollment could help close the gaps in the safety net and allow more families to celebrate the blessing of being able to sit down at a table of plenty.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council.