Hunger Hurts Children

By Michael Dahl, Director of the Minnesota Food Charter Network

I grew up poor.  I lived in a shoddy trailer from the 1960s, which had haphazard wafer-board additions tacked on as our family grew.  I lived through many of the experiences that poor families face.  I watched my parents try to reconcile an irreconcilable budget — high-interest loans and credit card debt “kept our family afloat.”   During the winter months, our home was very cold because our furnace was old and we had to ration fuel oil.  I remember waking up sometimes with my pajamas frozen to the wall; it made a Velcro-like noise when I peeled myself away.  And, as many poor children face, the kids in our family were stuck with the stigma of being poor.  For example, cheap and hand-me-down clothes often separated us from the “in-crowd” in school.

But, thankfully, there was one aspect of poverty I didn’t have to live with:  hunger.

You see, I grew up on 81 acres of hilly land in rural Wisconsin.  Most of the land was wooded, upon which my dad hunted for deer and grouse and our family foraged for fruit.  Also, enough of the land was arable for my uncle to farm on and for our family to have two large gardens which (along with the venison) helped fill our freezers with food for much of the year.

Thankfully, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a child and not know where my next meal would come from.  It agonizes me that this is a reality for some kids.

Obviously, my adolescent experiences shaped my passion and drive to end poverty, especially childhood poverty.  As part of this work, I want to play a role in reducing the symptoms of poverty many kids face today — hunger, housing instability, poor health.  Unfortunately, too many kids may face these issues; 15 million, or over 20%, of children in the US, live in poverty.

When I hear that according to the Minnesota Department of Health 4 in 10 Minnesota public school students are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch, I feel conflicted relief.  I’m grateful free-and reduced-priced lunches are available, but my blood boils that poverty is so pervasive in Minnesota.

We need to do better.  Why?  Because poverty and hunger hurt children.  Focusing on hunger and malnutrition:

  • “Growing up in a hungry household in the first couple of years of life can hurt how well a child performs in school years later.”  (NPR reporting on a 2017 Childhood Development journal article)
  • Children who are food insecure may be at higher risk for several chronic health conditions like anemia and asthma.  (Feeding America)
  • “Malnutrition in the first years of life is especially harmful, impacting physical growth, decreasing resistance to disease, limiting the size and functioning of children’s brain structures, and stunting intellectual capacity.”  (American Psychological Association)

Certainly, we must do better.  Imagine the lives that would be positively impacted if the Minnesota Food Charter’s mission were actualized so that every Minnesotan – every child – had reliable access to healthy, safe, and affordable food, no matter where they lived or their family’s income.

Now let’s go beyond imagining.  By tackling the strategies on local, state, and federal levels, we can diminish poverty and childhood hunger. Visit the Resources page on Minnesota Food Charter Network website to find a host of guides and toolkits to see which strategies you can address in your community. Let’s advocate together so that strategies in the Minnesota Food Charter become a reality.