"It's dinner time in America. But for one in four children, you'd never know it." The ad with the simple image of an empty plate is meant to catch your eye — especially if you came across it in the November issue of a favorite magazine, tucked among the tips for a traditional Thanksgiving feast. It's part of a campaign by Share Our Strength, a national non-profit organization that fights childhood hunger. As they say below the picture: "Dinner time is when families gather to share their day and create memories. But for nearly 17 million children, dinner time can be the cruelest part of the day. Right here in the United States, almost 1 in 4 children don't know when they will have their next meal."
Thanksgiving is a season to celebrate plenty, and a day when many families sit down to tables overflowing with favorite foods to give thanks for all they have been blessed. For many people, Thanksgiving dinner is the largest meal of the year — and by the time they've finished that last piece of pie, their stomachs are so full they'll be physically uncomfortable. But, the canned food drives and other pleas for donations this month are a quiet reminder that for too many families, Thanksgiving will be like any other meal: not a time of plenty but a time of want.
Share Our Strength notes 50.1 million Americans aren't able to regularly put enough nutritious food on the table, and that food insecurity, which includes "running out of food without money to buy more, cutting portion sizes or skipping meals, and not feeding children in the family because there isn't money for food," exists in almost 15 percent of all U.S. households. Almost 70 percent of food insecure families live above the poverty line. These numbers aren't just statistics. They reflect the reality many of us are already seeing in our own homes, neighborhoods, or communities right now, as families who were blessed enough to be able to contribute to those canned food drives during past Thanksgivings are today joining the lines of those in need.
Food insecurity is especially devastating for children, whose developmental well–being depends on access to adequate nutrition. Ensuring all children access to healthy, nutritious food will ultimately improve educational outcomes, reduce rates of childhood obesity, and enhance the mental and emotional health of our children. In addition to everything we know about the devastating short– and long–term effects hunger has on individual children, we also know that allowing children to go hungry is taking an economic toll on our entire country. This is documented in reports like Feeding America's "Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on Our Nation," which concluded "the direct and indirect effect of child hunger in the U.S. is a contributing factor to the nation's economic woes and puts America at a competitive disadvantage." Childhood hunger in the United States is a shameful and preventable crisis and we must work together to solve it right now, from individual efforts in our own communities to supporting policies that fight hunger at the national level. A first immediate step is to make sure the massively underutilized federal summer feeding program's bureaucratic barriers are eliminated so that the more than three million children who get free and reduced price lunches can ease hunger during the long summer months. Hunger does not stop in June when school is out.
President Obama has set a goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015, and the federal child nutrition programs, which provide nutritious meals and snacks each day to millions of children, are an important component in these efforts. Right now there is an important Child Nutrition bill stalled in Congress because it is currently paid for with cuts in food stamps. The President and Congress must find another way to pay for the bill other than food stamp cuts. It is all about choices — what do we value? Tell your Member of Congress that hungry children need help but not by taking from one hand to give to another.
Several years ago, the Children's Defense Fund's pro bono advertising partner Fallon Worldwide created a campaign for us that updated the moving words of Langston Hughes's poem "God to Hungry Child":
I did not make this world for you.
You didn't buy stock in my corporation.
You didn't invest in my mutual fund.
Where were you when my company went public?
I made the world for the rich
And the will–be–rich
And the have–always–been rich.
Not for you,
As we are giving thanks to God for all our blessings this season, is that really the message God wants us to give to America's hungry children?
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund.