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Commentary: School’s out, and often that means kids go hungry

News Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Thousands of parents aren’t celebrating the arrival of summer. They’re dreading it. That’s because 300,000 children in our area will lose their school meals this summer, and local food banks, emergency kitchens, and pantries are bracing for the dire need about to hit.

How bad is the problem?

In Camden, Philadelphia, and the surrounding areas, hunger is almost twice as pervasive as in the rest of the country. Here, a staggering one in four people face hunger; nationwide, the number is one in seven. Hunger isn’t limited to high-poverty areas – it hits all zip codes, from the Main Line to Cherry Hill and everywhere in between.

Philadelphia ranks 10th among the nation’s counties in the number of food-insecure children, meaning those who live in households that lack reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food. Philadelphia has the highest number of food-insecure households in the state, with 335,560 people, almost a quarter of the population, not knowing where their next meal will come from. It’s surprising to many that Montgomery County ranks third in food insecurity in the state and Delaware County is fourth.

In South Jersey, and specifically Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties, between 10 and 14 percent of the respective populations are food-insecure, with one or more children under the age of 16 at risk of going hungry. In very rural areas like Salem County, more than 64 percent of children live below the poverty line.

Who are the hungry? Many people think of the hungry as being homeless or unemployed, but that’s a gross misconception. In reality, most of those we serve have jobs; 60 percent of those facing hunger are considered “working poor” – adults who have at least one job, maybe two, but are having a hard time making ends meet. For some facing hunger, food assistance is temporary, needed during a significant life event such as a change in health, a family hardship, or a job loss. For others, like seniors, it helps fill an ongoing monthly gap because Social Security isn’t enough. For some kids, it’s a fact of life.

About a third of those facing hunger in our area are children. The problem worsens in the summer, when more than 300,000 of our area’s children lose their free school meals. Being out of school means local children are likely going hungry.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Feeding America, a national food bank network, food insecurity rates for children are considerably higher than overall. Forty-four percent of all food-stamp participants in federal fiscal year 2014 were children (about 20 million). Food banks can help fill the gap, but the problem won’t go away without fixing the flawed system that puts families and their children in this situation.

How can we help? This summer, the Food Bank of South Jersey, Philabundance, and other organizations will help fill the meal gap through free initiatives like Philabundance’s KidsBites LunchBox Program, sponsored by Giant Our Family Foundation, the Fill a Glass of Hope fresh milk campaign, and Fresh for All produce distributions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The Food Bank of South Jersey’s summer meals program will provide daily breakfast and lunch to more than 95,000 kids by distributing about 3,500 sandwiches at 100 sites throughout Camden, Burlington, Gloucester, and Salem Counties.

For Mary Wright of Salem, the summer program has been a huge blessing. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me,” said Wright, mother of Sam, 9. “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t get this help. My paycheck just doesn’t go far enough.”

If you’ve never supported a food bank before, now’s the time. You can:

Volunteer.

Donate food.

Donate funds.

Farmers and stores can donate produce and other products.

Write and call your state and federal representatives and urge them to support hunger-fighting programs.

Please consider helping hungry children by supporting your local food bank. Because hunger doesn’t take a summer vacation.

Valerie Brown Traoré is the president and CEO of Food Bank of South Jersey. vtraore@foodbanksj.org

Glenn Bergman is the executive director of Philabundance. gbergman@philabundance.org

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