Worldwide, natural disasters and armed political conflicts are
among chief causes of hunger. Our hearts break with ongoing accounts of African
refugees, many of them children, dying from starvation and dehydration as they
travel on small, overcrowded ships across the Mediterranean to flee violence. With
nothing else available to sustain them, some drink sea water, which satisfies briefly
but ends up killing them by hastening dehydration.
The number one cause of hunger throughout the world, though, is poverty.
In the United States, outright starvation is relatively uncommon. But because
of poverty, many families are unable to get the food they need while surrounded
by a sea of unhealthy options.
In my state, New Mexico, the rate of poverty is high. So is the rate
of children living in food insecure households, where access to good nutrition is
limited by a lack of money or other resources (27 percent in New Mexico,
compared with the national rate of 12 percent). Because hunger can affect
families in any community, however, American Academy of Pediatrics policy encourages
pediatricians to screen all children for food insecurity. It also recommends
becoming familiar with local resources such as food pantries where we can refer
families, and advocating for state and federal nutrition support initiatives
that make a big difference in many children’s lives.
"Research shows us that children who live in households where food is limited by lack of money or other resources get sick more often and recover more slowly. They have poorer overall health and are hospitalized more frequently. Hunger also impairs a child's ability to concentrate and perform well in school and is linked to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems.”
Nationwide, more than 40 million Americans utilize the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) each month, with 2 million children lifted
above the poverty line through the program. Many families also benefit from
Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and school lunch, breakfast and summer
feeding programs. For the past 2 years, the American Academy of Pediatrics has
been at the forefront of efforts to reauthorize these important programs, which
now limp along without needed legislation. Efforts continue and can use all of
Here in New Mexico, we passed a law last year to help end
“hunger-shaming.” The law prohibits the practice of branding children who are
behind in paying for school lunches. (Quite literally, some schools scrawled
that they owed school lunch debts on their forearms, and gave them a very
simple, obviously identifiable and less adequate school lunch.) We haven’t yet passed a recent bill to
require school districts to educate teachers and other school people on the
effects of poverty on learning and social development, but we should.
March is National Nutrition Month, a great time for pediatricians
to commit to helping families access the food children need. This year’s theme
is “Go Further with Food,” but in fact, we should all remember that you can’t
go anywhere without food.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Lance Chilton, MD, FAAP, is currently chair of the American Academy
of Pediatrics Council on Community Pediatrics, and a former New Mexico
Pediatric Society president and District VIII vice chair.