The Commonwealth of Virginia is home to some 1.8 million children. Of these, 16.5 percent, or about one in every six kids, lives in a food-insecure household. This does not mean every one of these kids goes to bed hungry every night. But it does mean they do not always know where the next meal is coming from.
Fifty years after our nation launched the War on Poverty and its sibling sister, a war on hunger, it is time to reconsider the way we fight hunger in America and in Virginia and whether we can do better.
Fair Share Education Fund, the organization I work for, this month released a report entitled Childhood Hunger in America’s Suburbs. The report vividly demonstrates how the geography of childhood hunger has changed since the onset of the Great Recession, from 2007 to 2009.
Our researchers measured the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches under the National School Lunch Program between the
2006-2007 school year and the 2010-2011 school year. We found that the Great Recession made the risk of childhood hunger significantly worse.
And that risk is pervasive. Hunger is no longer strictly an urban and rural phenomenon. Our report demonstrates that the risk of childhood hunger is a problem affecting nearly every American community, including some of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs. This includes communities that might otherwise think hunger is a problem that happens “somewhere else.”
In our research, one statistic stood out. A strong plurality of students newly eligible for the free or reduced cost school lunch program since the onset of the Great Recession live in the suburbs - 45 percent. By comparison, 23 percent live in cities, 20 percent live in rural areas and 12 percent live in small or mid-sized towns.
In Virginia, from the 2006-07 school year to the 2010-11 school year, statewide eligibility for the National School Lunch Program increased 5.7 percent. By contrast, eligibility for the school lunch program in Virginia’s suburbs increased by a much greater 7.5 percent. And in the metropolitan statistical area that includes Fairfax and Arlington counties, it increased 7.7 percent - all in all, 36.9 percent of schoolchildren in these two counties were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
Last week, the Brookings Institute issued a report that traced the spread of poverty to the suburbs. Our findings reinforce the Brookings Institute report: the face of childhood hunger, like the face of its related sibling, poverty, has changed. And our perceptions toward hunger and our policies toward fighting hunger must change with it.
The fact is that the suburbs now look like the rest of America when it comes to issues such as hunger and poverty. Hunger and poverty in the suburbs are catching up to hunger and poverty in the cities, small and mid-sized towns, and rural areas.
And yet: childhood hunger is a solvable problem. We already have the tools we need to fight childhood hunger: we simply must make the most of them.
Examples of programs that work include SNAP, the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program.
Working in targeted states, Fair Share Education Fund has collected pledges from more than 100 elected officials ranging from school board members to state legislators to members of Congress. These officials are pledging to make the issue of childhood hunger a priority.
We can solve hunger. We simply need the will to do so.
Nick Arent is the Virginia organizer for the Fair Share Education Fund, a grassroots field and advocacy group, working to make sure everyone gets, pays, and does their fair share; and plays by the same rules. Find out more at www.fairshareonline.org/edfund.