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Food Stamps in Elmo’s World

NYT Motherlode: Adventures in Parenting

How would you explain to Big Bird what a food pantry is? How might one Muppet explain to another why a family can  afford food for only the first 25 days of a 30-day month? How does a parent talk to a child who is taking a smaller serving to make sure that a younger sibling has enough?

Those are all questions that the people behind “Sesame Street” have  considered, and there is something about that, more than all the statistics,  more than anything else, that brings home the fact that there are children in the country who go to bed hungry. Those children are real, and there are enough of them, and enough parents struggling to feed them, that the “Sesame Street” creators  offer not only a special on the topic, but pamphlets and materials to help those parents make their children feel more secure in a world where they have been forced to worry that there won’t be enough for their family to eat.

My colleague, Marcus Mabry, came across those pamphlets in our office and wrote about his reaction on the International Herald Tribune Rendezvous blog. I shared his sense of cold reality, and called the Sesame Workshop to ask what led them to put together “Food for Thought: Eating Well on a Budget” and to include advice on talking to children not about hunger in the abstract, but about hunger at their own tables.

“When we realized that 9.6 million children under the age of 6 are impacted by food insecurity,” said Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Senior Vice President for Outreach and Educational Practices at Sesame Workshop, “we realized we needed to reach out to those children and their families.” “Sesame Street” had talked about healthy eating, but what about healthy eating when cheap snacks seem more filling, and cheaper, than real food? “We also wanted the children to see that they’re not alone,” she said. “Hunger can be a very hidden problem. And we wanted to help reduce the stigma of needing help.”

One part of the result was an hourlong program about a Muppet child who sometimes goes to bed hungry (which can be watched online). But more poignantly, there is this advice for parents and caregivers:

If your child thinks that you are worried about having enough food, he may also become worried. Listening to your child’s concerns about having enough food and talking openly about what is happening will reassure him and is a way to help your family find solutions together. Encourage your child to ask questions, and answer them as best you can. It’s O.K. if you don’t have all the answers. Make sure your child understands that you are doing everything you can to make sure that your family has enough food to stay healthy and strong.

It’s no shocker that “Sesame Street” teaches children about healthy eating, or even that it might talk about hunger in the abstract, in the same way a parent might reprimand a child for wasting food when others go hungry. The familiar Muppets can help a child through everything from big-kid beds to grieving.  But when the average American throws away 33 pounds of food a month, Elmo and Big Bird shouldn’t need to help a child worried about being hungry for anything more than an extra cookie.


Follow KJ Dell’Antonia on Twitter at @KJDellAntonia and on Facebook.

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