Few people would consider it right to let a child go hungry, though odds are many do not consider the implications of such hunger beyond the discomfort of a growling stomach. However, the cumulative consequences of children growing up without proper nourishment are much more far-reaching and serious.

Food influences a child’s health beginning during pregnancy. When a mother lacks nutritious food during gestation, there is an increased risk of the baby being born at low birth weight, perhaps with cognitive and physical impairments. Malnutrition in early infancy through age three, a critical time of brain and central nervous system development, inhibits cognitive development and, by extension, learning ability.

Children who come to school hungry struggle with academic performance, have problems learning, show reduced comprehension ability and have lower than average math and reading test scores. They are in need of special education services at a higher rate than their non-hungry peers, and are more likely to repeat grades. Special education services cost nearly double the average annual amount necessary to educate a child, and if a child also repeats one or more grades, education costs can easily be four times that amount. Poor nutrition and hunger lead to behavior problems as well, and inhibit a child’s functioning in the form of hyperactivity and disruptive behavior. Disruptive behavior can in turn affect all the students in the classroom.

Children who experience prolonged hunger are disadvantaged throughout their school years, resulting in poor grades or early school drop-out. Poor academic outcomes in high school may eliminate the option of seeking higher education or learning a trade or skill that will lead to economic self-sufficiency as adults.

Food insecurity and hunger have become problems faced by an increasing number of children, strongly impacting the health, academic performance and employability of an entire generation. For years, private response to hunger and food insecurity has been to help families once they’re already hungry, primarily through food pantries and soup kitchens. Food distribution outlets were never designed to be a permanent solution to hunger in America, and as important as they are to the families who rely on them to meet their basic food needs, they are not an adequate long-term solution.

Personal income and economic security are closely tied to food insecurity and both child and adult hunger. With wage and job losses becoming common-place and the jobless staying unemployed for longer periods, it is increasingly difficult to elevate a family’s personal income to the point where they can comfortably afford to purchase nutritious food. Thus efforts to alleviate child hunger should be focused in two specific categories: improving existing prevention programs and improving existing safety nets.

Prevention is critical to ensure proper child development and avoid long-term societal costs. Funding programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) costs substantially less than paying for the negative consequences of hunger later. Primarily federally funded, these programs have proven themselves to be successful and cost-effective, as they manage to feed hungry children and provide significant returns on investment.

Failing prevention, school-based meals provide a wide-reaching net that can catch virtually all children who lack sufficient nutrition at home. With free/reduced-price meals provided to students throughout Montana, school-age children have a source of nutritious food, at least for lunch during the school week. An increasing number of schools are also providing free/reduced-price breakfasts, as well as snacks and weekend/vacation food programs, because children aren’t hungry only during school hours or on school days. Increased state or federal funding will make more meals available to students throughout the day, week and year.

– Thane Dillon is director of Montana KIDS COUNT.

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