by Brea Smith
Hunger is a language everyone on Earth understands, uniting us all. The sense of hunger links every human being, regardless of where we came from or who we are and reminds us of our shared humanity. It’s undeniable that all 8.1 billion people who walk the earth need food, so why isn’t it accessible to all? Why does food insecurity still exist in 2023?
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “the lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life.” That means having a well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein.
Kelli Williams is a professor of dietetics at Marshall University, has an extensive background as a dietitian, and has worked in various settings. She is also involved in Marshall’s Nutrition Education Program, which aims to instruct students of all ages about nutrition.
Williams said “[Food] is fuel for our bodies, and we want to be able to operate at our best mentally and physically. We have to be properly fueled. It is kind of like how a car has to have gas to go.”
Food insecurity was already a worldwide challenge before COVID-19, affecting millions of individuals and families. However, the problem of food insecurity quickly worsened with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns, supply chain disruptions, and economic downturns resulted in widespread job losses and financial insecurity, putting more individuals into insecure food situations.
In 2020, Feeding America reported that 3,590 children in Cabell County struggled with food insecurity. However, in 2021, this number surged to an alarming 12,010, highlighting the urgent need for sustained efforts to address the growing issue of childhood hunger in the region.
The significant increase in that number can be attributed to the school closures. When schools closed their doors in March 2020, children lost access to two guaranteed meals each day, five days a week.
Regardless of age, it is crucial to have access to food but it is essential for child development, “There is a big need for good nutrition at those ages for cognitive abilities for their growth and development, both physically and intellectually.” Williams continued, “There have been research studies that show that kids who have a proper diet or kids who eat breakfast in the morning are going to perform better at school.”
It’s challenging to concentrate on anything when you haven’t eaten; your mind becomes consumed by thoughts of hunger when you haven’t had an opportunity to eat. Travis Austin, Director of Food Services for Cabell County Schools said, “If I have a kid who’s starving in my room, how does any of the content that I’m trying to teach them matter? How’s that even important? Their basic needs aren’t being met; you know, if you’re hungry, that’s really the only thing you’re thinking about.”
While interviewing Austin, he shared a story from his time as a teacher: “It was about ten years ago before Christmas Break and the last day was just a makeup day. So I’m thinking in my head, there’s going to be like, twenty kids in the whole building. From my classroom, I could see the cafeteria and there were a lot of kids. I thought about why they were here. They don’t have to be here today. I thought there were at least two to three hundred kids in school that day and that was more than I expected. Then I thought some of these kids are coming to eat.”
In addition to children finding it challenging to concentrate at school due to hunger, they face an increased likelihood of repeating a grade, difficulties in socializing with peers, and potential developmental setbacks in areas such as language and motor skills, all without considering the potential for future medical issues.
Amy Gannon, a professor in dietetics at Marshall University, focuses her research and expertise on childhood obesity, nutrition education, and nutrition across the lifespan. Her specialization lies in addressing childhood and adolescent obesity.
“The more nutrient-rich somebody’s diet is with fruits and vegetables and whole grains and lean meats, the overall healthier their bodies will be so that long term helps to prevent chronic disease. It helps to prevent diabetes and heart disease,” Gannon said.
According to Gannon, fatty foods rich in saturated fats, as well as foods high in refined grains such as white rice, pasta, snack cakes, and cookies, have been consistently linked to the gradual accumulation of excess calories and the development of health issues, including obesity, diabetes, and ultimately, chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease.
When considering the undeniable importance of providing kids with nutritious meals, we must also face the stark reality of what occurs when school is not in session, whether it’s for the weekend, during the summer break, or due to unexpected closures like those caused by a pandemic. During these periods, the safety net of school meals, which countless students rely on for essential nourishment, becomes temporarily unavailable. When these resources become unavailable, individuals often turn to various assistance programs such as backpack programs, community donations, food banks, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to address their food needs.
During the pandemic, those receiving SNAP benefits saw a 15% increase in their benefits, which equals an extra $95 a month. In addition to the rise in SNAP benefits, initiatives like the backpack program, where schools would assemble nonperishable food items in backpacks for students to bring home, played a significant role in providing support. Austin is also responsible for ordering food supplies for Cabell County Schools’ backpack program and mentioned, “I try to get non-perishable items, things that are easy make kids like easy mac and cheese, beef ravioli, but I try to look for stuff that isn’t very labor intensive. So, if a kid was home and didn’t have somebody to make some form that they could make a do a number of cereals, cereal bars, fruit juices or fruit cups.”
While programs like SNAP and the backpack program still provide meals for children, communities struggle to meet the demand, especially now that the pandemic is officially over. With the official end of the pandemic declared on May 11, the additional SNAP benefits were reduced.
The rising food prices and inflation have become a growing concern for consumers worldwide. As the cost of essential food items continues to surge, households feel the strain on their budgets.
According to data from the U.S. Inflation Calculator, food prices experienced a 3.9% increase in 2020, followed by a 6.3% rise in 2021. In 2022, food inflation surged to 10.4%; in 2023, it has
settled at 4.3%..
There is still a long way to go before we can guarantee that every child has access to nutritious meals as we navigate the complex interactions between child poverty, the long-lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the gradual stabilization of inflation rates.
While we may see a glimmer of hope in the recent decline in inflation, we must remain committed to addressing the root causes of food insecurity. Hunger shouldn’t be a normal part of growing up. If we all understand its causes and consequences, we should be more diligent in mitigating its causes.
Brea Smith is a senior at Marshall University studying Multi-Media Journalism. She is from Piketon, Ohio. She has worked for Marshall’s student newspaper, The Parthenon. She enjoys writing poems and short stories in her downtime, listening to music, and spending time with her family.