Q&A: Advocate Reflects on Interviews With Families About Hunger
Last month, the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based group, released a report with an upsetting conclusion: One out of eight children, or perhaps as many as 5.5 million people under the age of 12 nationwide, experience significant shortages of food.
Unlike childhood malnutrition, a medically diagnosable condition, childhood hunger is not easily measured. To reach their conclusion, frac enlisted the help of advocacy groups in seven states to conduct surveys of 2,335 representative low-income families with children under the age of 12.
Lily P. Webb, a resident of Pontiac, Mich., worked with the local Hunger Action Coalition to conduct surveys of families in her community. Staff writer Ellen Flax interviewed Ms. Webb about her experience talking to families about hunger.
Q. Who are the families that are the most likely to be hungry? Did they share any common characteristics?
A. Some of the families shared common characteristics, but others [didn't. Some] had been laid off. They had been working families for years, and all of a sudden they were without jobs and dependent upon [welfare] or some other means besides the normal check, [or] food stamps. Some people had nice homes, some people had homes that were just adequate. You really couldn't stand outside and say, "This is a hungry family." ...
There were many homes that had two parents within the household. Sometimes, the mother and the father had worked. At times, one of them was laid off; at times, two of them had been laid off, and maybe one was on disability. There were all sorts of reasons. The bottom line was that quite a few people were hungry.
Q. Could you describe the physical and emotional characteristics of a hungry child?
A. The emotional characteristics would be easier to describe than the physical characteristics. Sometimes a child can be very fat or heavy, with a nice build, and be hungry. When you don't have enough food to go around, you resort to lots of potatoes, starches. You don't buy fresh vegetables because they are too expensive.
[Emotionally,] sometimes [the child would] be fidgety. You can't hold his attention in school. You can't hold a decent conversation with the child. He is an irritable child, one that is constantly in trouble and sleepy.
[In the homes], some of the children would come and talk with me. They would ask me if I was going to bring more food, but I told them that that was not part of my job.
Q. How did the families react to your questions? Were they ashamed to tell you that they were hungry?
A. A few families were ashamed to tell me that they were hungry, but most families were able to freely discuss the situael10ltion. Some of them were put at ease when I let them know that I had been where they were.
Q. Were the hungry children and families you surveyed reluctant to seek out food pantries and other public and private assistance?
A. Quite a few people were aware, but even with knowing that there are options, you need to be able to have transportation to get there. If the facility is not in your neighborhood, you need a ride to get there or even a ride to leave there. If you walk, then how are going to get home with this bag of groceries? You need to have money to pay someone to take you or to bring you back home.
Most of the people that were hungry were aware of the different places they could go, and they were aware of food stamps. Most of them were, in fact, receiving food stamps, but your food stamps do not last an entire month. So after the food stamps run out, then what? Plus, the food stamps don't buy everything that's on your grocery bill. You use your extra money to buy tissues and detergent and everything else you need to run a household.
Q. What were the common strate6gies they used to stretch out their limited food dollars?
A. Quite a few parents fed themselves less so that the children could eat. They resorted to going to grandma and getting something extra. I talked to quite a few people who had gardens, but your gardening period is not very lengthy in Michigan. Mostly they bought cheaper food, shopped the sales if they had transportation, used starches and lots of beans, and then some of them used [government programs]. Some of them coupon shopped.
Q. What sort of role did the school breakfast and lunch programs play in feeding these children?
A. Before the [frac survey], we did not have [a] school-breakfast program. This was one reason why the Hunger Action Coalition decided to come to this area. ...
I have talked with some of the parents after the school-breakfast program was put into effect, and they say that the children are getting better grades. They get up a little more rapidly because they know that it's not going to be just a slice of toast and maybe a glass of milk at home. They can get something a little bit better at school.