Lessons children shouldn’t have to learn. By Amanda Lopez-Betanzos.
December 16, 2011
Amanda Lopez-Betanzos is a Child Nutrition Program Associate at Feeding America. She writes about the need for food insecure families to have access to a variety of nutrition programs to help feed their children and themselves.
After reading the recently published NY Times article on the surge in participation in school meal programs, I found myself reflecting on the number of children who are learning a new lesson. This isn’t the lesson their teacher carefully crafted with diagrams and hands-on exercises. This is a lesson in learning to survive in a new and different economic climate; learning how to go without a meal, two meals, or perhaps food the majority of the weekend. It’s a new subject to learn, one that we hope our children would never be taught.
Over my past five years of working at Feeding America, I’ve had the opportunity to visit various emergency and established feeding programs. I’ve been in big cities where tall buildings blocked the sky and been in small farming towns where I could smell the fertilizer on the fields. Through my visits I have discovered that there are multiple ways to fight food insecurity, and that it is a variety of interventions that often provide a more inclusive safety net.
I observed it with Margarita, a bright-eyed, middle aged woman in Colorado acting as the primary caregiver for her two grandsons. (You can see her video here.) It was a shift for all three to live together, but Margarita says she adapted quickly to her new way of life. She works two jobs to ensure the boys have a safe home with electricity and heat, clothes and food. But at times it isn’t enough.
Her grandsons attracted attention from school staff because the oldest had broken his wire frame glasses. The school counselor knew the boys’ recent change of housing and asked their grandmother if the eldest would be getting a new pair of glasses soon. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the budget right then, especially after the hard winter and higher heating costs and scraping together for the day rent was due. The school helped the boy get a new pair of glasses and sent him home on a Friday afternoon with a backpack full of food.
Margarita told me he was so proud – “look Grandma, look! I brought food!” The items in the backpack, prepared by the Care and Share Food Bank, provided the boys with food to eat throughout the weekend, and stretched the family’s food budget. While the program started as a simple pack with just a few items for the child, Care and Share Food Bank has expanded the pack to include enough for the whole family. Margarita gladly accepted the pack as a big help that serves as a management approach.
The recently released report, Hunger’s New Staple, shows that the new normal for families is to utilize emergency food from pantries as a long-term strategy rather than simply meeting temporary acute food needs. Other coping strategies include combining SNAP benefits along with pantry food and the grocery budget. The average SNAP benefit often doesn’t last through the whole month. But for a child enrolled in the national school meals program who may not have enough to eat, being directly enrolled in SNAP can make a big difference. And for a family like Margarita’s, receiving a BackPack makes a big difference as well as serves as a vehicle to learn about and utilize other services like SNAP and local pantries.
Adding supper programs ensures children won’t be learning how to go to bed and wake up hungry. Including other programs like the BackPack Program means children will have food to eat even when school meals aren’t served. By linking these resources together, a family like Margarita’s can experience a greater sense of food security and hope. I have seen how vital both in school and out of school nutrition support is for children and how it is a lesson learned in the importance of the safety net.