Blame or Shame? When It Comes to America’s Kids, Where Do We Stand?

Don’t know about you but to me the blame game has hit the hyper-drive button.  Whether it be Fundamentalists claiming that the country’s economic difficulties are God’s payback for licentious living or Herman Cain pointing to the unemployed as being responsible for their own unemployed status, the mounting accusations are deafening and ultimately unproductive.  The Right blames the Left; the Left blames the Right.  Libertarians blame anything that smacks of cooperative, interdependent governance, yearning for circa 1900, a Paradise Lost.  And the Anarchists?  They blame the world.

The one segment of the population that has virtually no voice over the current US economic tailspin are the children.  But like any vulnerable, powerless group, they are caught in the crosshairs.  

A recent headline not only caught my attention but stunned me by its implications.  One in four American children are now categorized as “food insecure.”  I initially misread this label as ‘hungry, absolutely food deprived.’ 

Not necessarily true. 

According to a report sponsored by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) food insecurity is defined as follows:

Limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (Anderson, 1990).

The IOM points out that this ‘insecurity’ can be cyclical in nature.  Mom and/or Dad have work one month with adequate hours and money to buy food for the family and the next month their hours are cut. Less hours, less money, less food. Or, as is the case for many middle-class families, the jobs they once depended on simply vanish and nutrition suffers.  Or a family is living on a meager monthly wage that runs out before the month is over; so food is available at the beginning of the month and in short supply as the month goes on. Walmart has confirmed this cyclical nature, reporting that their customers, many of whom are low-wage or government-assisted households, are running out of funds before the end of each month.  The company has spotted the pattern in their sales records—thin at the end of the month, a big spike at the start. The rising cost of food has only complicated matters.

But wait!  Haven’t we been awash in data warning about the growing problem with childhood obesity?  Michelle Obama has used her office as First Lady to address not only the problem but accompanying health concerns–diabetes, for instance, a silent killer and a condition that’s expensive to treat. How can we have food insecurity and obesity at the same time?  A paradox, for sure.

Again, not necessarily.

A study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Drewnowski A, Specter SE. Poverty and obesity) indicates that meager incomes will affect a family’s behavior when it comes to food.  When faced with bills to pay—rent, utilities, expenses to get to and from work, etc.—a family head will limit funds to those needs where the cost is not fixed.  This behavior directly impacts the purchase and selection of food.  When purchases are made, low-income families will steer towards calorie-dense foods, selections high in sugar and fat but low in cost.

You gotta do what you gotta do, as my Mama once said.

Though there is contradictory data for the effects of calorie-dense food on children, particularly young children, we do have data indicating the link between food selection and obesity in low-income women.  This from the IMO:

Researchers and the public increasingly are recognizing that obesity and food insecurity co-exist in the same families, communities, and even the same individuals. For example, recent research suggests that household food insecurity may be related to increased weight in women.

The paradox is explained, at least in part: food insecurity is linked to poverty and particular food selection, which can play havoc on weight. This makes sense to any of us who have had weight problems [Peggy Sue raises her hand because of a childhood weight problem].  Genetics, metabolism, emotional factors, physical activity are certainly factors, too. But food selection plays an important role.  Nutritional experts are now seriously questioning the sort of foods we’re feeding our kids in school programs and other government-assisted nutritional outreaches.

Finally, symbolizing the growing number of American kids in poverty and those tumbling into the ‘food insecurity’ category, Sesame Street has added a new, cameo-appearing Muppet—Lily, the hungry kid.  This move has already come under attack by PBS critics, who claim that this is simply another ploy to reinforce the Nanny State, a pulling of heart strings by left-of-center activists.

But here’s what we know: 25% of American children are now categorized as ‘food insecure.’  That represents 17 million children, a number which spikes during the summer when school is in recess. Food insecurity can result in cyclical, end-of-the-month nutritional deficits and/or possible obesity because of calorie-dense food selection.  Our children, all our children, represent the future.

Who do we blame?  It’s easy, even tempting to point fingers or take self-righteous, politically-charged stands. 

But if we continue the blame game, point fingers without pushing to alleviate our rising poverty rates and the subsequent food insecurity of our children?  Then shame on us.

Additional information can be found at Feeding America:

The stats on rising poverty and food insecurity in the US are nothing short of . . . staggering.

And check out Map the Meal Gap, where you can see how your state, your region measures up in food security/insecurity statistics:

A final note: I am very happy to be joining the fine staff of Sky Dancing. Everyone has been kind, encouraging and helpful as I put my toe in the water.  This is a new venture for me, a different sort of writing than I normally do. But I’m looking forward to join the discussion and analyses from a different vantage point. And learn as I go.

38 Comments on “Blame or Shame? When It Comes to America’s Kids, Where Do We Stand?”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    Welcome to the front page, Peggy Sue!! I’m so looking forward to your future posts.

  2. bostonboomer says:

    One of my biggest problems with this country is that as a nation is we don’t consider our children a priority. We are not a child-friendly culture at all. And yet, children are our future. It is shameful that any child can go hungry, be homeless, or lack heath care and good educational opportunities. But so many do.

    • Branjor says:

      Yes, this is a related to the fact that America does not prioritize people in general, esp. women and the poor. A child cannot be happy, healthy and well fed if the adult who cares for her is not. It is like the instructions the airlines give in case of an emergency and the oxygen masks fall out of their overhead compartments. Adults are instructed to put the oxygen masks on themselves first so that they will be able to then assist their children. It’s all interrelated.

    • Peggy Sue says:

      Thanks BB. And I agree. Without healthy, strong kids, there is no future. And this has all sorts of implications with school performance, general behavior problems and basic health. It’s a pay me now or pay me later kind of deal. Strong, healthy kids tend to grow into strong, healthy adults. And isn’t that what we want? If not, we need to reset our priorities.

      • bostonboomer says:

        And hungry, neglected, and/or abused kids may grow up to be criminals. It costs plenty to house a prisoner, probably more than providing free meals or help to attend preschool programs.

      • Woman Voter says:

        Spot on BB, and as you know some politicians are seeking to cut out the school breakfast/lunch programs along with preschool. But buying more weapons no problem.

    • Branjor says:

      Also, adults often are denied needed help if they don’t have children. For instance, I have no health insurance and no money (I have been laid off) but here in New Jersey an adult has to either have children or be disabled in order to qualify for Medicaid.
      Another experience of mine was long ago in Indiana during a subzero cold snap when the heat in my apartment conked out. So I called the police and they asked me if I had children. When I said I didn’t I was told there was nothing they could do for me and that was that. I ended up turning on the oven for warmth and it’s darn lucky I had an electric stove because I might not be here now except for that.

      • Peggy Sue says:

        There’s absolutely no doubt that outreach is needed for all age groups, Btanjor. I concentrated primarily on children because they have no power what-so-ever, over policy decisions, family disruptions, whatever. But last year when I heard that funds for heating oil was being cut to low-income families, I was appalled. We have money for everything else–endless wars, billion dollar campaigns, padded contractor bills. But not enough for our own people.

        That doesn’t sit right with me. Or a lot of others.

      • Branjor says:

        So true, Peggy Sue. It certainly doesn’t rest well with me either.
        As an unemployed lesbian with a psychiatric record, I don’t feel like I have any more power personally than a child over the direction this country takes, except for my vote, and that unfortunately is usually a choice between horrible and even more horrible.

        Excellent post, glad to see you on the front page.

      • Woman Voter says:

        In my area we worked hard on a working people’s insurance program that couldn’t afford insurance and who didn’t qualify for medicaid. It has been a success and kept many people from going bankrupt.

        I also volunteered at a Free Clinic and we would wink, nod as many from the ‘wealth’ country would access the clinic, as we knew if we didn’t the people wouldn’t receive any care otherwise.

        Your point is well taken on the heating assistance problem…we need to help each other out, as we won’t survive otherwise.

  3. Welcome Peggy Sue! Great to finally see you on the frontpage after reading so many of your wonderful comments.

    Food insecurity is a really important topic — I’m glad you chose it for your first post.

    I love Hillary’s “Feed the Future” initiative at the State Department (another example of how the world has Hillary when America could have used her on the domestic stage):

  4. Delphyne says:

    Hey, Peggy Sue – happy to see you front paging here! I’ve so enjoyed your comments in other blogs and here. Now, off to read your first post.

    • Peggy Sue says:

      Thanks, Del. This is a little different than what I’m accustomed to, writing-wise. But it’s a great staff. They’re walking me through it.

  5. Beata says:

    Excellent post, Peggy Sue. Glad to see you joining the front-pagers!

    I worked for a while in a government-assisted program that helped young children living in poverty. As part of the program, each child received a nutritious hot lunch five days a week. I’ll always remember the first time a new group of children got a meal that included steamed broccoli. Several of the children said, “Ew”, but one darling little girl declared, “I love broccoli!” and drove right in to eat it. Other children followed suit. They may not have learned to “love broccoli” but they did eat it. Of course, that program has suffered cuts in funding in recent years. A crime, imo.

    • dakinikat says:

      I used to market broccoli as green trees and cauliflower a snowy trees and put cheese on top for cheesie trees to my girls. My eldest never had seen anything like canned spaghetti when she had a first play date at a friends house in the neighborhood. I fed my kids good stuff from the get go and they never ever missed or developed a taste for the other stuff. They both ate sushi in the high chair too but had no idea what a candy bar looked like. If you start them off young right, it really helps. Even when they would go a food jags they were good ones. My youngest went on a salad kick at 4. That’s all she would eat. Neither of them eat chips or drink soda. They are unsweet tea girls like their mom. So much of things would be much better if we would just treat little kids right instead of some other person’s property.

    • Beata says:

      That should be “dove right in”, not “drove”. She was much too young to drive. 🙂

      Back to bed for me!

    • Peggy Sue says:

      Thank you, Beata. I’m afraid you’re right. This is going to get worse. But if we can’t take care of our kids, all of our kids, then we’re doing something terribly wrong. And, ultimately, we’re only shooting ourselves in the foot as a society. Even if we think only in economic and competitive terms, we don’t have the luxury of wasting talent or physical energy.

      It remains to be seen if we’re going to be not only responsive to a need and growing problem but . . . smart.

  6. The Rock says:

    You mean there is another really really REALLY good front-pager on Sky Dancing? I guess the rich DO always seem to get richer!! Great post Peggy Sue!!

    Hillary 2012

  7. bostonboomer says:

    I remember when LBJ was president there were studies that showed hunger in America was a real problem. There were children in the south who actually had swollen bellies from malnutrition. It was shocking then and it was a huge media story. In the new “Cruel America,” no one seems to care.

    • Peggy Sue says:

      Do you remember when Bobby Kennedy went through Appalachia? I remember seeing those pictures and being stunned as a kid–broken down shacks. I grew up in South Jersey. We had poor. But I’d never seen anything like that.

      Interestingly enough, when I was working on this piece, I discovered quickly that poverty and food problems are much greater in rural areas. That’s not to dismiss the urban centers, sometimes referred to as ‘food deserts.’ But the rural population frequently has no access to outreach centers–no transportation and services are spread out over a wider area.

      A problem for sure.

  8. foxyladi14 says:

    instead of hiding their money in off shore accounts.the rich could make a big difference here.

  9. joanelle says:

    Or, foxyladi14, instead of spending it on killing people in wars we should be making happy kids by feeding them well and just loving them.

    Thanks for this great post Peggy Sue – I look forward to many more.

  10. Woman Voter says:

    Congrats Peggy Sue on your first post with many more to come.

  11. quixote says:

    Great and thoughtful post. And a topic that can’t be discussed enough.

    Obesity among the undernourished is a minor point, but one that really irks me when people bring it up. Makes me want to yell at them. Hello? Have you ever had to worry about where your next meal is coming from? You don’t think that might make you eat everything you could when you could get it? You don’t think that might have a teensy bit to do with getting fat and malnourished?

    • northwestrain says:

      Mrs. 0’s campaign against childhood obesity — is just like Mrs. Ray-gun’s “just say no” campaign — meaningless.

      Very often fat and malnourished kids — do go together.

      As I travel around I’m doing my random surveys of dollar type stores — and many are cheap sources of food that I wouldn’t feed my dog. Nearly all the food at these stores have labels in fine print taking up a whole side of the packaging — high fructose corn syrup — and all the other dextrose and bad for humans fillers. Parents fill their shopping carts with this junk and don’t pay much. It will fill the kids up.. . . .

      Mrs. 0 really doesn’t have any concept of how poor people live or how they have to stretch their food budget. And she really doesn’t care.

      Good topic and one that needs to be discussed.

      Perhaps schools are no longer teaching Home Ec. and nutrition??? We got that in 8th & 9th grade. Very detailed and intense.

    • Peggy Sue says:

      Obesity is always thrown out there with accompanying rude and disbelieving statements that obesity and food shortages could not possibly coexist. Irregular eating patterns and poor food selection can throw your sugar levels and weight all over the place. Add the stress of families in crises and you’re on your way.

      I find some people very resistant to the idea that there’s true need across the country. The Map the Meal Gap is both revealing and shocking.

  12. Fannie says:

    Thank you Peggy Sue…………..most of our problems now, and in the future will stem from the fact that more and more children are poor and hungry. The effects are indeed long lasting, and families are busted up because of the damage. Parents are having to go without dental care, and eye glasses and new clothes for themselves and their children. And it seems that the salvation army is also over prices their clothes, which pisses me off. If you are going to donate
    make sure you give to those that will hand out jackets and coats free. I often send several coats to Indian reservation, and they are in excellent shape.

    I am reminded of this year’s extreme weather, and how that has food prices going sky high.
    I can tell you that I have helped a couple of families buy freezers so that they can buy meat in bulk at $1.45 to $1.50 lb. for beef and or chicken. They must break it down, and bag it for freezing, but that helps when you are feeding a family of four/five. The other thing I have been collecting is crock pots…………..My intention is to pass those out to families, with recipes to help them this winter. I know alot of kids do not like chunky veggies, so I have recipes that call for them to be grated, which adds extra flavor and nutrition. I have also suggested cooking meatless meals, using more beans, and rice, and serve up fresh fruit when possible, even if it means going to apple orchard and picking your own.

    If prices keep going up, and food stamps cut back, then it’s time for “Food Riots”………….