The day is coming, Aerolyn Hayes knows, when she’ll be able to give her children all the food they want and need. Especially the healthy stuff.
Fresh fruit every day. Vitamin-rich vegetables all the time. Big meals with plenty of meat. And every night, even at the end of the month, there’ll be enough food for her and her husband to share the same nutritious meal.
No more scrimping. No more telling her kids they’ll have to wait until 2 for lunch so they won’t need a snack before dinner. No more “goulash” nights at the end of the month, before food stamps come in, when her husband makes a meal out of what’s left in the cupboards.
“There are a lot of us out here struggling,” says Hayes, 29, of Kansas City, Kan., a mother of four children ranging from 3 months to 10 years. Since March, when her husband, David, lost his retail job, they’ve been getting by on food stamps, unemployment and any odd jobs he can find. And every month but one, she’s run out of many food items before the next food stamps come in.
“If you’re barely making it, you can understand how your neighbors are barely making it,” she says. “But if you’re going to the grocery store every week, spending $200 to $300 each time, then no, you’re not going to understand. You may just not see it.”
Yet the metro area is full of people who can’t give their children the food they need every day, with the proper nutrients that doctors and researchers say are necessary for young kids to become healthy and productive adults.
And when that happens, the experts say, the cost to society in the years to come is much greater than the cost to feed children now.
Teachers and nurses see the early toll in our schools: The student in the Northland who falls behind because he can’t concentrate. The boy in Kansas City, Kan., who leaves class complaining of pains from an empty stomach. And there’s the principal in rural Bates County, Mo., which has the area’s highest rate of what researchers term “food-insecure” children, who sees kids act out or underperform on Monday mornings because they haven’t eaten enough over the weekend.
“We’re dealing with it,” says Jani Drake, principal of Rich Hill Elementary School, about 70 miles south of Kansas City. “But when a kid comes in hungry, we’re trying to stress academics, and academics is secondary to them.”
In Missouri, one in four children live in homes where there’s not always enough food. Missouri in recent years has been as high as fifth in the nation for food-insecure kids. Kansas has been ranked as high as 12th, with one in five children living in homes where food is lacking.
Sometimes, especially in the recent years of the economic downturn, all that struggling families can afford is the high-fat, high-calorie foods that satisfy the taste buds and stomach but do little to nourish brain and body.
“I’m constantly surprised and distressed how little attention is paid to the harm we are doing children,” says John Cook, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine. “A colleague said to me, ‘If we wanted to create a whole class of mentally deficient children, there’s no better way to do it than to subject them to food insecurity and hunger.’
“No adult, no child wants to admit that they’re living in an inadequate environment. People find it hard to accept that’s happening in this country, but I’m sorry to say it is.”
For the second year, The Star is partnering with the Harvesters food bank to help children who too often go home to little food. This year’s KC Challenge: Childhood Hunger begins today and runs through the Christmas season, with more coverage and a virtual food drive for Harvesters.
Hayes wants people to realize that some families do everything they can to put enough food on the table. Sometimes — maybe because they’re out of work or they’re paying high costs of fuel and other utilities — they come up short.
There have been times recently when neighbors have knocked on her door in the Silver City apartment complex and revealed they had nothing to cook for dinner that night. Hayes will go through her own pantry, making sure she has enough to feed her own children, and then help out where she can.
“Sometimes I’ll be like, ‘OK, I can give you a half a bag of chicken,’ ” says Hayes, who also has turned to her neighbors. “We help each other. Sometimes that’s all you can do.”
‘The brain runs on food’
The fallout when children don’t get the nutrition they need can create a lifetime of troubles: Delayed speech or motor skills in early childhood, social ills in elementary school, severe academic woes in high school. Some become dropouts.
All because, experts say, food-insecure children often are deprived of the proper nutrients at a time when their brains and bodies are going through the most essential growth.
The damage can start early, says Deborah Frank, a national childhood hunger expert and director of the Grow Clinic for Children at Boston Medical Center.
Even in the womb, when a baby’s brain and body are developing, proper nutrition from the mother is vital. The structure — and future size — of the brain is largely established in the womb and first three years, says Frank, who has studied childhood hunger for 30 years.
Once the child hits school age, food and proper nutrition throughout the adolescent and teen years affect the brain’s performance.
“Remember that the brain runs on food,” Frank says. “Neurotransmitters are made from what you eat. So the first thing that happens when people are not getting enough to eat, before their weight changes, their brain isn’t working as well.”
Several vitamins, minerals and fats are needed to make the myelin sheaths that cover a child’s nerves in the brain. If children don’t get enough nutrients to feed the myelin, the way the nerve cells work and the brain functions can be affected.
Teachers, parents and day care workers see the trouble signs.
“The child who has experienced food insecurity will be less curious about his environment,” says Cook, who has worked alongside Frank on many studies. “They’re less motivated to actively explore and learn about their environment. They’re somewhat subdued, more prone to behavioral problems. More prone to responding in extreme ways to stress in their environment.”
That child also is more likely to be withdrawn, appear reticent and afraid, and cry more easily, he says.
At Children’s Mercy’s Ready, Set, Grow clinic, pediatric nurse practitioner Kathe Kraly sees malnourished children every day. Some families don’t have the money or know about resources to help them provide for their children. Other parents may have the financial resources but may not know enough about eating right.
Whatever the reason, the children face similar outcomes: babies who are underweight, with brains not growing as quickly as they should; children who lag on growth charts and appear lethargic and detached.
“If you’re not getting enough calories, your body conserves energy for essential functions, like heartbeats and breathing,” Kraly says. “You’ll continue to do the things you have to do, but you won’t get heavier, won’t get taller, and your brain doesn’t grow like it should.”
Families who can’t always provide their kids a steady diet of nutritional foods try to sneak in as much as they can, when they can.
Sherry Pulluaim, 32, of Kansas City knows she can’t always afford fresh fruits and vegetables. Sometimes the key is to just get her children full. Until she found a job earlier this month, she’d been out of work for eight months, struggling to give her children the nutrients they needed. More than once her cabinets have been bare.
But at least once a day, she makes sure they get a balanced meal.
“If I know breakfast isn’t looking too hot and healthy, I try to make up for that at dinner,” says Pulluaim, who lives in Friendship Village Apartment complex, a part of Phoenix Family Housing. “My kids don’t know it’s a hard time for us. They don’t know I’m not able to give them what I want.”
Same goes for Linda Duncan, who works as many hours as she can as a home health care provider. She wants to give her five children the nutrition they need. She lists fresh apples and oranges as must-gets at the grocery store each month.
She wishes she could provide more fresh fruit for her kids, but food stamps and her earnings only go so far.
“I try to give them something so they can concentrate in school,” says Duncan, who lives in Henry County, Mo., about an hour from Kansas City. She and her family are living with friends while trying to find a place of their own. “… The worst feeling in the world is to have my babies come to me and say ‘We’re hungry. We’re hungry.’ ”
On one recent night, after the food was divided and put on five plates, there wasn’t any left.
“Mama, how come you’re not eating?” one of her children asked.
“I ate earlier,” she assured them.
But they knew she hadn’t. Before she could stop them, each of the children took some of the food from their own plates to give to her.
What it’s costing us
Hungry children are sick more often. More likely to be hospitalized. Less likely to reach their full physical potential.
Later in life they won’t perform as well in the work force, researchers say, because they’re not as well prepared physically, mentally or emotionally as those who had proper nourishment as children.
“Even if someone doesn’t care about children going hungry, they may care about the societal costs that come with children going hungry,” says Craig Gundersen, lead researcher in the recent Map the Meal Gap study that showed every county in the nation has food-insecure children. “I don’t know what it takes to convince people about this. These are well-developed measures we’ve been using for years.”
Last year, a study conducted by the National Cancer Institute and the University of Calgary found that if a child goes without food 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 21/2 times as likely to have poor overall health 10 to 15 years later, compared with those who never went without food.
Experience hunger two or more times and a child is four times as likely to have poor health later.
Some of the damage caused by childhood hunger can be reversed. Extra nutrients, special-education courses and other methods can help malnourished children regain much of what they lost.
But, experts say, that intervention is costly. And it takes time.
“It’s quite cheap to feed children and very expensive to hospitalize them and give them special-education programs and so on,” Frank says. “It’s just dumb, to put it mildly.”
As Karen Haren, president and CEO of Harvesters, talks to people across Kansas City about childhood hunger, she tells them it’s a problem that can be solved. And she tells them what’s at stake if it’s not fixed.
“I know that this gets said a lot, but children are our future parents, community leaders and teachers,” Haren says. “We have a lot riding on these kids and we’re compromising that future when so many kids are hungry.”
A child’s thank you
He’s 10 and a student at Southeast Elementary School in the Park Hill School District.
Every Friday during the school year, this fourth-grader knows he’s going home with a pack of food. And he’s pretty happy about that.
“Some of us don’t have a lot. We only have $20 of money,” he says, shrugging. “My dad does every single thing he can to work.”
On this day, a Friday morning earlier this month, he and about four dozen of his schoolmates gather in the cafeteria to color pictures. They want to tell others how getting the BackSnacks from Harvesters makes them feel. It’s a thank you, in a way.
This year alone, Harvesters will give the backpacks to 15,000 students each week in a 26-county area. That’s up from fewer than 1,000 just five years ago.
But what gnaws on Haren is the image of those kids who need the weekend food and still don’t get it. In the six-county area, roughly 20,000 students could still use the weekly BackSnacks.
“That means there’s probably a good chunk of kids going without food on the weekend,” Haren says. “The community is so important in this. It takes the community’s commitment to feed hungry kids.”
In last year’s virtual food drive, sponsored by The Star and Harvesters, more than 1,700 people donated a total of more than $235,000. This year the goal is to raise even more.
Getting a BackSnack makes one young boy feel “great and happy because now I have food for my family. Also, I have never been to a school that gives kids food.” Another feels “excited” and “astonished.”
As kids color, using crayons and markers and colored pencils, the fourth-grade boy is the most open, so eager to talk about the food that Platte County residents Jim and Jeanie Massey from Heartland Church of Christ — whom kids know as the “Heartland Helpers” — drop off at his school every Friday.
“I went to Harvesters the other day and that’s where they pack the BackSnacks,” the fourth-grader says, his eyes wide, as other kids look up from their coloring to hear more about his Boy Scout troop’s field trip. “I packed 20,000 pounds of food that day.”
Students here talk about how some of their parents have to work overnight to make money. Many of them have several brothers and sisters, even cousins living with them. And on Fridays, when they get home from school, the BackSnack food is often divided up to be eaten later.
“My mom says I have to put the food in the cabinet for people to eat,” one girl says.
Adds another: “Sometimes I go home and make the macaroni and cheese for my sister and cousin.”
Teachers and the school social worker know that more families could use the food each weekend. Maybe next year they’ll be able to put more kids on the list.
“When we have a short week, kids already on Monday are asking, ‘Will we get our BackSnacks early because we don’t have class on Friday?’ ” says Cheryl Gunn Seidler, the social worker at Southeast Elementary. “They’re already thinking ahead about it.”
If only people saw what they saw, she and other nurses and educators say. They’d realize that kids worry about food. They worry if there’s going to be enough to eat.
In the words of one 11-year-old boy, writing about the BackSnack he takes home each weekend:
“It helps my famley of 8 becuse we all work as hard as we can for food.”
Better days coming?
Every morning, before she makes breakfast for her kids, Aerolyn Hayes gives herself a pep talk. This is the day, she tells herself, that someone’s going to call with a job for her husband. Or for her.
“I feel like we’re right there, that that perfect job — any job — is coming,” she says, smiling.
She and her husband check the computer every day for new job listings. They talk to friends about what jobs are out there. Whatever they get, they know they’ll have to take the bus to and from work because the transmission recently went out in their old car and they couldn’t afford to fix it.
Yet she says she’s not discouraged. Just more determined to provide for their young family. In the past two months, she estimates that she has put in 100 job applications. She photocopies each one and writes the date when she submitted it.
When someone tells her, “We should know something in two weeks,” she calls back 14 days later to ask whether there’s any progress.
Later this week, on the first of December, she’ll make out her menu for the month as she does every four weeks, using recipes she learned from two health classes on how to provide the most nutrients to her children on a tight budget. She’ll put dinners in one column, lunches in the other.
And she’ll make note of the food she’ll need for special occasions, like the upcoming holidays. It’s what she did last month when she bought a pound of bacon for her daughter’s birthday. For weeks, it sat in the freezer with a “Don’t Eat” label so she could fry it up this past Tuesday for the special birthday breakfast.
Next weekend, when December’s food stamps come in, she’ll go to Aldi and fill her cart with as much as her food stamps will allow. Lots of whole wheat bread and tortillas. Maybe this month more healthy foods will be on sale. Maybe she can get a few extra apples and oranges.
For Christmas, she’s already written down the thrift stores where she can buy her kids clothes. Nothing over 99 cents. Then, in the days before Santa comes, she’ll wash somebody else’s hand-me-downs and get out her iron, putting creases in the pants and making sure the sleeves are crisp.
“It doesn’t matter where you get it, when they put it on, it should be nice,” she says. “My kids think they have the best Santa Claus in the world because he irons their clothes.”
It’s that positive attitude again. The one she relies on to reassure herself and her husband that these times are temporary. That they won’t always struggle to put enough food on the table every day of the month, and they’ll get past the goulash nights.
That’s why she’s OK, at the end of the month, when there may not be enough for her or her husband to eat with their children. She just sits with a glass of cold water and watches her children eat.
“I look at them and when they’re done, I ask them if they’re full,” Hayes said. “When I get that ‘Yes,’ then hey, I’m full. That’s enough for me.”