Growing up I was fortunate. My father owned a country store so we always had plenty of food to eat, he made sure of that. In retrospect, I really had too much food to eat as evidenced by my lifelong struggle with weight gain. I was reminded a few weeks ago that for many children, both then and now, that was not and is not the case. Our staff was engaged in a teacher training session in a town in the Mississippi Delta when a knock on the door of the training room was heard. A participant opened the door and found a young boy looking in at the group. He asked if we had any food. He was given some snacks and sent on his way.
When the local teachers were asked about the frequency of children requesting food, they responded that children in the neighborhood often come at lunch time looking for food from the staff. They deduced this was probably due to the fact that the children assumed someone had food there even though the school site was not part of the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) which was in other schools in the district. This national program is administered by the USDA, which ensures that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session.
According to the USDA, the estimated prevalence rates of food insecurity during 2013-15 ranged from 8.5 percent in North Dakota to 20.8 percent in Mississippi. For years, The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been the cornerstone of the nation’s nutrition assistance safety net, offsetting the cost of food for those who qualify. Benefits are available to most people who meet the financial and nonfinancial requirements, and the program serves a broad spectrum of low income people. In Fiscal Year 2015, SNAP provided about $0.92 billion dollars in food benefits to a monthly average of 636,322 people in Mississippi. The program served 82.8 percent of Mississippians eligible for benefits in 2014. In 2017, the USDA released a report on SNAP benefit distribution that listed every Congressional District in Mississippi. The report stated more than 50 percent of families statewide receiving SNAP benefits had children under 18 years of age.
To combat hunger in our state, we have to acknowledge it exists and contributes to health issues plaguing our citizens. As previously stated, Mississippi leads the nation in food insecure households. Low-income individuals are at increased risk for both food insecurity and obesity. Lower-income individuals often have more limited access to affordable, healthier food options — living in neighborhoods with fewer grocery stores with less healthy options — and that have more available less expensive food options, such as processed or fast foods, are of lower nutritional value and are calorie-dense with added sugar and/or fats. In addition, some families have cycles of food deprivation and overindulgence — where they restrict or skip meals sometimes due to lack of funds — which can contribute to increased risk for obesity.
One reason we must combat hunger in our state is due to how it negatively impacts learning. According to Feeding America, hungry children are more likely to repeat a grade in school, experience developmental delays and have more social and emotional problems.
To further reduce hunger in Mississippi, we must not allow the funding of the SNAP program to be jeopardized by a reduction in federal funding or a shift to move the financial responsibility to states. This plan, proposed by the current administration, would be devastating to hundreds of thousands of Mississippians.
Communities across the state are trying to fill in the gaps with weekend food packs for students and summer feeding programs that are not government sponsored to offset the limited access to the school-based feeding programs in some communities, but more must be done.
My Daddy’s memories of growing up hungry stayed with him throughout his life time. They would manifest themselves from time to time in unexpected ways, but at his death in his mid-eighties, he was still asking if we had enough to eat at every meal we ate together. Given my experiences, is it fair to ask, what memory will the young boy who knocked on the door asking for food carry with him and what will be the effects?
By Dr. Cathy Grace