He slowly took the apple off of his lunch tray, wiped it with the cuffs of his jacket, looked around to make sure no one was looking and discreetly hid it in his backpack. “Jonas, why don’t you eat your apple?” I asked. Jonas turned his head, frowned and silently answered: “We don’t have fruit at home, and my baby sister loves to eat fruit.” I was so saddened by the response that I immediately wrapped my arms around the slender third-grader and practically squeezed him until he was breathless.
Though all of us would like to believe otherwise, hunger does not only affect the impoverished expanses of Haiti, India and Africa; it is an issue that upsets our very own communities including, but not limited to, High Point, Greensboro, Asheville and Winston-Salem. Unfortunately, it is an issue that most frequently bears its brunt on our children, for North Carolina leads the nation in the percentage of children under the age of 5 who suffer from hunger. One in four North Carolinian children under the age of 5 regularly experiences food insecurity, which makes them more susceptible to disease, an inadequate education and a dismal future. Childhood hunger is not merely a humanitarian concern; it is an issue that affects our state’s education system, workforce, healthcare, crime rate and quality of life.
First, hunger diminishes academic achievement among younger students and results in poor examination scores, increased absences and additional grade repeats. Not only does remedial education account for a large portion of our state budget, but it also reduces the amount of time and resources that students could use to gain additional knowledge and experiences. A knowledgeable, experienced and reliable workforce is essential for our state to attain and retain a stable economy. Malnourished children who perform inadequately in school are unlikely to gain the essential skills necessary for a productive workforce. Additionally, hunger generates unsustainable expenditures that hinder the growth of our economy. If we fail to provide our children proper nutrition in the first five years of their lives, there will be no way for our economy to achieve its full potential.
Second, the majority of children who are inadequately fed are more vulnerable to illness than their peers. Malnourishment not only weakens the immune system, but also can lead to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and medical conditions such as stunted growth, severe weight loss and organ failure. Though the energy provided by means of nourishment is used primarily to sustain the operation of bodily organs and promote physical growth, it is also necessary for thought processes and psychological stability.
Third, malnourished children are naturally exhausted and apathetic to their surroundings, rendering them less likely to engage in productive relationships, learn from their environment, acquire worthy experiences, cope with challenges and distinguish between good and bad decisions. They are exposed to augmented states of angst, aggravation, depression, hyperactivity and social instability and are more likely than their healthy peers to need psychosocial treatment. Almost all psychosocial disorders are significantly more prevalent in malnourished children than in well-nourished children. In fact, hungry children are seven to 12 times more likely to display conduct disorder. As a result, these children are much more likely to engage in criminal activities and altercations, thereby increasing their chances of getting suspended from school. Hungry children are more likely to steal than their adequately fed peers.
Finally, 41 percent of North Carolinian adults who have not graduated high school receive supplementary food assistance, in comparison to 14 percent of total adults nationwide. This statistic suggests a strong association between education and the probability that an individual requires emergency food assistance. Moreover, some families are compelled to forego basic needs such as housing or utilities in order to provide proper nourishment for their children. Almost 42 percent of impoverished families have had to make the decision between buying food or paying for heat, and 35 percent have had to make the decision between buying food and paying for their rent or mortgage. Parents often feel guilty, humiliated and anxious after making these decisions, thereby enhancing the disruption of their relationships and causing household instability.
Hunger affects both the employed and the unemployed and considerably upsets the lives of our children. Avoiding the issue, pretending it doesn’t exist, blaming the parents and rationalizing their economic hardships, or continuing to believe the myth that hunger is a problem experienced solely by others—other nations, states or individuals with different lifestyles—hinders our ability to solve the problem. Hunger relief is not the responsibility of the government, food pantries or schools; it is the responsibility of each and every American citizen.
Whether it’s through volunteering, donating or spreading the word, we can all help ensure that children like Jonas never have to hide apples in their backpacks again.
Mousa Alshanteer is a Trinity freshman. His column runs every other Thursday. You can follow Mousa on Twitter @mousaalshanteer.