Childhood hunger affects thousands in KC area

Melanie Small bites her lip, trying hard to fight the tears.

The mere mention of food — the thought that on some nights she has only noodles for her three young children — causes her to cry. She cries harder when she thinks about the times when she has no food for them at all.

Regular people, she said, those whose stomachs are full, don’t understand.

“They see infomercials of starving children in other countries,” Small says.

She’s 33. Separated. Her kids are 10, 7 and 5.

“I think people have this image of starving African children,” she continues. “They don’t see us. They don’t see the kids here in America who are hungry.”

Yet in the six-county metro area alone, an estimated 100,000 children live in homes where cupboards too often are bare, where the parents may not know where the next meal is coming from. One-third of those children live in extreme conditions where some days they go hungry.

And it’s worse here than in most parts of the country. Missouri ranks fifth in the number of homes with unstable food supplies. Kansas comes in 12th.

Educators and social workers see the faces of childhood hunger every day. The elementary school student in Kansas City, Kan., who tucks part of her lunch into her pocket so she can eat it that night. The teenager in Kansas City who, embarrassed, reveals that there’s no food at home. The kid in Warrensburg, Mo., who asks every week if he, too, can get a Harvesters backpack of food for the weekend.

Schools on both sides of the state line are feeding breakfast to a record number of children each morning. More kids are on free and reduced lunch, and their families rely on food pantries as if they were grocery stores. Teachers keep stashes of granola bars and crackers, knowing that a hungry kid is a distracted kid who struggles to learn.

The stakes are high.

“If we can keep kids eating, we can keep them growing and healthy,” said Gail Hendrix, nurse for the Harrisonville School District. “Not only are we helping them, but in the end they’ll do better in school and in our communities.”

Relief workers, even churches and small towns, are doing what they can. But they’re haunted by it not being enough.

That’s why this holiday season The Kansas City Star has partnered with Harvesters to host a virtual food drive for hungry children. The goal is to raise money to support the BackSnack program, which provides weekend food to children in 269 schools across 26 counties.

Harvesters estimates that 30,000 children in the six-county area need that food to tide them over to Monday, yet the agency can afford just 10,000 packs each week.

“That’s 20,000 children (in the metro area) we know who could use a backpack and aren’t getting one,” said Ellen Feldhausen, Harvesters’ director of communications.

It’s time, experts said, that communities realize no one agency, church or school district can feed all the hungry children.

Over the next two weeks, as the food drive continues, The Star will share stories about kids who go to bed hungry and who get excited not about candy, but about a can of corn or a loaf of bread. One little girl’s letter to Santa asked him to bring food.

Other stories will show how communities, churches and regular people have stepped up to feed our kids.

The challenge is for more people to do the same.

“People talk about us being in the heartland, being the farmland of this country,” said Jeanna Repass, director of Kansas City missions for Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, which is in its second year of a ministry to help feed the area’s hungry children. “When people used to homestead, whole communities would come out and raise a barn together. If someone had sickness, they helped with the crops.

“Somewhere along the line, we lost that. When you talk about children, they are our most vulnerable and are victims of their parents’ circumstances. It’s incumbent on the entire community to say, ‘This isn’t OK.’ ”

Feldhausen breaks down the numbers on the sheet of paper in front of her. Numbers tallied using the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics and census data.

More than 40,000 children under 18 in Jackson County are in “food-insecure” homes — those without enough nutritious food or any food at all.

In Johnson County, there are about 28,000. In Clay County, more than 13,000.

Keep in mind, Feldhausen cautions, that these numbers use USDA statistics from 2006 to 2008. We don’t know how many kids in the metro have gone without enough food the past two years, during the worst of the recession.

Yet relief agencies, including Harvesters, have some clue.

In Johnson County, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas is seeing more families so far this fiscal year than last. Nearly half of the people who received assistance in the first five months of fiscal 2011 were under the age of 19, and the vast majority of those received food.

Earlier this year, when the Catholic Charities pantry in Olathe had fresh fruit and vegetables to give out, a line of families snaked around the downtown building.

“I’ve never seen that here before,” said director Tamra Brandes. “It was like something you see in Mexico or inside small villages in other countries.”

Last month, a church in Paola gave away nearly twice as many Thanksgiving baskets as last year, most to families with children. And at Harvesters, the overall need in the 26-county area is up 40 percent this year, with 37 percent of the people served under age 18.

“We’ve tried to step up everything we’re doing to get food into the community,” said Karen Haren, Harvesters’ president and CEO. “People want to make a difference if they know people are going hungry.”

According to USDA figures, the number of families nationwide who went to food pantries increased 44 percent from 2007 to 2009 to 5.6 million households. As of August, 42.2 million U.S. residents were using food stamps, a 17 percent increase from the year before.

The number of food-insecure households also jumped. In 2008, 15 percent of American families reported having to compromise in the amount of food or quality of food they consumed. That was up from 11 percent of families in 2007.

“For a country with the amount of resources we have, to have kids going hungry is obscene,” said Mark Rank, professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on poverty.

The people hurting aren’t just the homeless. Or families living on welfare and getting full food stamp benefits. It’s also the working poor, said social workers and resource specialists.

People working two or three low-paying jobs just to put food on the table and keep the lights on. Single moms who make just enough to pay the bills, but if anything goes wrong, they have less money for food.

“Some parents are just scraping together what they can for their kids,” said Cindy Foreman, Phoenix Family services coordinator at the Parvin Estates housing complex. “They paid rent maybe instead of getting food. And then they’re even embarrassed to use the food pantry.”

One 43-year-old mom from Olathe is raising a teenage son on her own. She wants to give him nutritional food, but often can’t. On this day she’s at the Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas pantry in Olathe.

“You can only afford food with fats and sweets,” said the mom, who didn’t want her name used to protect her son. “You just eat what you can get.”

Relief workers realize that no matter what the numbers show, no matter how many parents tell their stories of bare cupboards, some people will refuse to believe there’s a problem. Children aren’t going hungry, especially not here.

Not here in middle America, where churches are chock-full each Sunday with people who routinely shell out money to charitable organizations.

Not here, where school kids and organizations constantly collect canned goods for food banks and pantries.

The thing is, those pantries were designed to help families fill the gap once a month between paychecks — not to be the virtual grocery stores families today need them to be.

These pantries can’t handle it, though workers try never to turn people away.

“We’re seeing some people every week,” Brandes said as she walked through the Catholic Charities pantry, past some emptying shelves.

Some wonder what it will take for people to see what many children go home to every night.

Teresa Hill lives in the East Hills housing complex near 75th Street and U.S. 71. She’s raising her teenage son and has taken in a niece and nephew, ages 10 and 11.

Each month she gets $167 in food stamps and $674 for her son, who has a mental disability. That’s it. She has no more money coming in.

When there’s not enough food, she makes do. With a little of this and a little of that.

“I try to make dinner fun for the kids,” she said. “I say, ‘Come help me. What should we put in here tonight?’ ”

Hill doesn’t want them to know there’s not enough money for food. Like so many parents, she’d rather go without than have the kids sacrifice anything.

So when there’s not enough to eat, she doesn’t make a plate for herself. Instead, she scrapes from their plates and makes do with their leftovers.

“My children didn’t ask to come here,” she said, shaking her head. “I feel bad when I can’t provide for my children. We need help.”

Then she broadens the plea. She knows so many others who have only what she has or less.

“Our kids are hurting,” she said, her tone rising. “These kids are hungry.”

If children continue to not get enough nutritious food, the country will pay, said John Cook, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine.

When children are distracted in school for a day, that’s one thing. Yet when that happens day after day

“It may seem like a minor thing, but when that accumulates over a year or several years, the accumulative effect is the child misses a lot,” Cook said. “The child falls farther and farther behind.”

Childhood hunger can affect health, education and job readiness. In the end, it can cost society billions in lost dollars, Cook said.

One recent study, conducted by the National Cancer Institute and the University of Calgary, found that if a child goes hungry for just one day, it can have a lasting effect.

Researchers analyzed 5,809 children ages 10 to 15 and 3,333 youths ages 16 to 21. They found that one episode of hunger made a young person 2 1/2 times as likely to have poor overall health 10 to 15 years later, compared with those who never had to go without food.

Experience hunger two or more times and they are four times as likely to have poor health later.

People don’t realize, Rank said, what poverty and childhood hunger are doing to the country.

“If a student is not learning to his full potential, it comes back to haunt us as a society,” Rank said. “You


to invest in the future generation.”

Not ensuring that kids have enough nutritional food, he said, “is perhaps one of the most foolish things you can do from a policy perspective.”

Melanie Small works three jobs. The first one, for $12.84 an hour at a trucking company, pays her bills. Rent. Car. Insurance. Health expenses.

She makes $23 a month too much at that job to qualify for food stamps. So she works job two (at the housing complex where she and her children live) and job three (driving for a valet service) to buy food for Michael, Rilynn and Derikka.

“And sometimes that’s not enough,” Small said. “Sometimes you rob Peter to pay Paul. And sometimes you don’t pay Peter and just pay Paul.”

She’s up at 5 every morning and not in bed most nights until about 10. She plans meals based on how much money she can spend at the grocery store. Many times, meat is just too expensive. They go without.

The kids get reduced-price lunches at school and eat a small meal right after school through Harvesters’ Kids Cafe program at the Parvin Estates community center in the Northland.

For a minute, with tears still in her eyes, Small thinks about what she wants life to be like one day. When she doesn’t have to work three jobs and only be able to put noodles and Vienna sausages on the table.

“I want to have pork chops, mashed potatoes and green beans,” Small said, her tears making room for a small smile crossing her face. “I want to be able to sit down and eat with my kids and not have to worry about having enough food.”

She’s not there yet. But one day. One day.

For now, it’s spaghetti in white sauce, no meat. One slice of bread on the side.

No child should go hungry

The Star is teaming with Harvesters on a virtual food drive for kids this holiday season. Details, A19

Rise to the challenge

The Kansas City Star is partnering with Harvesters to host a virtual food drive. All money raised will go to Harvesters’ BackSnack program, which provides schoolchildren with food to take home for the weekend.

Go to

feedingkckids. harvesters.org

to give Harvesters $5 for a case of shelf-stable milk or $10 for macaroni and cheese, or to pay for a child to receive a food-filled backpack. All donations are tax-deductible.

If you’d like, dedicate a donation in a family member’s name as a holiday gift. The Star will publish names from dedications on Christmas Day. (If you’re interested, follow the directions in Harvesters’ donation confirmation e-mail.)

For more information, call 816-929-3010. You can also send checks made out to Harvesters, designated in the memo line for “FeedingKCKids,” to Harvesters, P.O. Box 412233, Kansas City, MO 64141-2233.