Credit: Pat Bagley, The Salt Lake Tribune, UT

Imagine the thought of not being able to feed your hungry child, or having to choose between food, electricity or medical care. Can you envision the agonizing feeling of helplessness? The thought alone is horrific, however, it is the reality for nearly 17,000 children living in Santa Barbara County. Families residing in low-income households are devastated by high rent prices and low wages, which only intensifies their experience with food insecurity. Many families are living paycheck to paycheck and still do not qualify for government assistance. Even if they do, many of them lack the awareness or knowledge needed to find and make use of the programs intended to help them.

One in six children in Santa Barbara County are food insecure; many of them living only on the meals they are provided during school. In order to be eligible for free or reduced price (FRP) meals, their family income must be at or below 185 percent of the state’s poverty level. According to the 2019 United States Census Bureau, this equates to approximately $48,000 a year for a family of four with two adults and two children living in Santa Barbara. Out of the 17,000 children living in low-income households, only 66 percent of them fall in this range. These numbers are devastating and will hinder a child’s opportunity to live a vigorous life when chronically faced with hunger.

Research shows that children who do not have enough to eat during the first three years of their life begin with an array of disadvantages. Those who endure hunger in their first year are particularly susceptible to harm as it impacts physical growth, decreases the body’s capacity to fight disease, limits brain size and functioning, and stunts intellectual capacity. Studies also show that food insufficiency in school-aged children is related to an increase in poor health conditions, including stomachaches, headaches, colds, chronic illness, social disturbances, developmental impairments, and stress. Therefore, it is imperative that children receive proper nutrition during this crucial phase of their development.

Aside from the cognitive and physical effects of hunger, there is also the stigma surrounding receiving free meals, as well as alarming shaming tactics by some schools’ trying to collect student meal debt. Some students have been sent home with “lunch money” stamped on their arm as a chilling reminder of their harsh reality. Other schools punish children for their parent’s struggles by having their hot lunches publicly thrown away and replaced with cold sandwiches. A nine-year-old boy in Napa felt compelled to help alleviate the problem and donated $80 to pay off his classmates’ debt. Motivated by this child’s actions, California Governor Gavin Newsom took a step in the right direction by signing a bill (SB 265) to put an end to schools’ giving alternative lunches to students with lunch debt. Recently, other members of Congress have taken notice and are working on further reforming child hunger laws. 

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act last year to expand on existing legislation and introduce new ways for the government to help mitigate the issues surrounding child hunger. If enacted, the bill will: prohibit schools that participate in the federal school meal program from denying meals to students, regardless of proof of eligibility; reimburse schools for their delinquent meal debt, stopping the harassment of parents and students; provide an extra $60/month per child on EBT cards to help families during the summer months; and provide up to three meals a day and a snack, at no charge, to children in child care, along with many other important ways to curb the child hunger epidemic.

Together, we can help reduce the number of hungry children not just in Santa Barbara County but the entire United States. It took one act of kindness from a nine-year-old to move the governor to sign a bill. Now you can make an impact by contacting your local elected official and asking them to help ameliorate child hunger by supporting the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2019. We should feel compelled to help those who are vulnerable and to ensure the healthy development of all youth. Please help parents avoid having to make a choice between hot water and hot food. A child should not have to go to bed wondering when they will have their next meal.


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