By Kieran Loughney
The smell of my mom’s apple pie baking in the oven. Many of us have that one childhood encounter with food that lodges itself in our consciousness, and when recalled, snaps us back to home and family. Some unfortunate children among us never have that pleasurable experience. For such kids, there exists only a constant awareness of their rumbling bellies.
The hot, dimly lit motel hallway with paint peeling and matted, greasy carpeting reeked of cigarette smoke. Children’s laughter and a baby’s cry burst from inside room 214. I set down the overstuffed grocery bags and knocked. Jenny, a mother in her mid-20s, greeted me, her toddler twins Tara and Sara (not their real names), peeking from between her legs, an infant cradled in her arms. Sara, spotting the groceries, squealed, “Mommy, the man got us food!” Jenny, a single mom, sought help from my employer, the county child welfare agency. The young mother, homeless after being abandoned by her husband, qualified for temporary shelter in a rundown motel. In a room equipped with only a mini-fridge and microwave, a family meal would be limited to canned Beefaroni, ramen noodles or sandwiches. I was tasked with delivering processed food, diapers and baby wipes to the room, as I had for other families, countless times during my years working in child welfare.
Throughout the pandemic we’ve seen images of an exhausted father sitting in a line of cars to receive a box of groceries, a newly unemployed tearful mother, suddenly unable to feed her kids, people once living well now shocked to find themselves dependent upon donated food. These heartbreaking scenes on nightly broadcasts give a sense of the magnitude of this seemingly new crisis. Yet, a positive effect of the pandemic is that a spotlight is finally trained on a problem I witnessed daily in my work in child welfare.
For single moms with few job prospects, underpaid workers, for the homeless, the elderly, the disabled and those living in the many “food deserts” in the United States, the struggle for nutritious, adequate food has long persisted. Children suffer most since when undernourished, according to the World Health Organization; their growth falters, brain development delays and their immune systems are suppressed.
The recently-enacted COVID relief bill promises a positive step toward food security in the United States. Ironically, it took a plague for the clients I served to receive more substantive help, possibly finally lessening the cycle of poverty. The bill extends a 15% increase in food stamp benefits first provided in the December 2020 relief package and earmarks $880 million for Special Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC. A child tax credit expansion, slated to begin in July, ensures a $300 monthly payment for eligible families which will, according to a Columbia University study, reduce the rate of children living in poverty by half. Democratic leaders will promote efforts to make the benefit permanent. Additionally, the United Nations has set a goal signed onto by 179 countries to end hunger globally by 2030. This ambitious agenda will require unprecedented cooperation among governments, business and individuals worldwide.
For children living in hunger, a meal provided by a food bank or a government program can ensure that basic nutrition is met. But Jenny and her kids merely subsisted in their motel room. Many parents I encountered in my work, even those with functional kitchens, lacked basic knowledge of nutrition and cooking skills and fed their children processed or fast foods—quick fixes—instead of fresh fruits and vegetables. In 2009 First Lady Michele Obama, motivated by concern for her own children’s nutrition, planted the White House vegetable garden, knowing it would be an easier way to get fruits and vegetables into her daughters’ diets. The garden became a tool for informing America’s kids about healthy food choices. Mrs. Obama stated at the time (as reported in The New York Times on June 1, 2009) that by teaching the children of this generation, “they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.” Jenny’s kids and all kids should participate in the process of cooking food from fresh ingredients chosen from a market with a parent or caregiver. The ceremonial carving of the holiday turkey, bowls of steaming stuffing and vegetables shared around a dining table help create a strong family bond. Such family traditions preserve a culture, passing it on through grandma’s recipe for sauce and meatballs simmering on the stove (or my mom’s apple pie). Treasured memories of those early experiences can feed children on a deeper level throughout their lives.
If you need food assistance or know someone who does, help is available through these charitable organizations.
- Feed America (feedamerica.org)
- Salvation Army 132 West 14th St.
- God’s Love We Deliver (glwd.org) (212)294-8102
- The Church of the Village
These organizations depend on community support. If you are able, please consider donating or volunteering to be a part of their vital work.