I have two simple questions to ask.
Last night, when you crawled into bed, did you go to sleep hungry? Or did you have enough to eat throughout the day?
The reason I’m asking has to do with an Associated Press article I read yesterday. The headline was — at least to me — a bit disturbing: For more children, dinner is coming from Uncle Sam.
The article had to do with a U.S. Department of Agriculture after-school program which feeds "… at-risk kids in communities where at least 50 percent of households fall below the poverty level."
All told, the program is currently feeding an estimated 49,000 children nationwide.
One of the short-comings of the program, in my opinion, has to do with the part about the program being available primarily only in communities where 50 percent of households are below the poverty level.
That "at least 50 percent" criteria seriously curtails the outreach potential of the program. And, with the numbers of families currently teetering on the brink of financial disaster, well… let’s just say, it’s not a good thing.
My biggest gripe with the limited availability of the program, however, has to do with families that most definitely fall below the poverty level, but which may not be recognized as an actual "household" — namely, homeless families. Subsequently, homeless families are probably not being tallied along with other households in any given community.
According to the National Center on Family Homelessness fact sheet, The Characteristics and Needs of Families Experiencing Homelessness, homeless children are two times more likely to experience hunger than non-homeless children.
A recent MSNBC article pointed out that,
"In 2007-2008 — the last school year for which data is available — the nation’s 14,000 public school districts counted more than 780,000 homeless students, a 15 percent increase from the previous year."
To be sure, the McKinney-Vento Act attempts to ensure that homeless children are provided with access to nutritional meals at school. It also provides for federal funding for those meals. The catch is that the funding isn’t dispersed automatically. School districts must deliberately apply for the grant money. If they don’t, they get zilch.
Unfortunately, according to Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, "… only about 6 percent of the nation’s school districts received money through McKinney-Vento last year, though many more applied."
To me, that’s utterly disgraceful.
We have become so accustomed to thinking of the homeless through skewed perceptions based solely on stereotypes. Regrettably, because we are seldom willing to challenge those perceptions within our own minds, we do not often stop to consider one particular reality: a significant number of our nation’s homeless are victims of circumstance.
Those victims are children.
They didn’t choose to experience homelessness. It was — through no fault of their own — thrust upon them.
I think it’s great that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has implemented its after-school meal program for students of low income families.
I also think the provision in the McKinney-Vento Act which is supposed to provide meals to homeless children is a good thing.
But, that the USDA program is currently only assisting about 49,000 children screams of bureaucratic inefficacy. That only 6 percent of school districts received funding through McKinney-Vento, is also evidence that all of the "red tape" is creating more of an obstacle than actually providing a solution.
To me, however, what is most egregious is how those of us who are John and Jane Q. Public have failed to raise our voices. We have allowed the politicos and the bureaucrats to drag their feet and do little or nothing to reduce the numbers of homeless. We’ve remained sinfully silent while hundreds of thousands of this nation’s children experience homelessness on any given day of the year.
The opening paragraphs of the AP article mentioned a 3-year old named Avery Bennett.
Regarding her serving of lasagna, Avery asked: "Can I have some more lasagna?"
Avery’s question is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, when Oliver, who is experiencing his first day at the orphanage, holds out his bowl and asks: "Please, sir, can I have some more?"
Oliver Twist and his hunger are fiction.
For this nation’s homeless children, facing hunger is a reality.