As we prepare for Thanksgiving, it's hard to believe that there might be a kid on our block who doesn't know when her next meal will come. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that nearly one in four children struggles with hunger.
For most Americans with enough to eat, the hungry kid in our neighborhood is invisible. Hunger in the U.S. doesn't look like famine in developing countries, but its consequences are nonetheless devastating. Children who don't regularly get enough healthy food suffer behavioral difficulties, fatigue, poorer health, weaker immune systems and more hospitalizations. Hungry kids also show impaired performance in school. More than 60 percent of public school teachers identify hunger as a problem in the classroom. Many buy food for their hungry students.
We can end childhood hunger in America in this decade, maybe in the next five years. Programs are already in place. We need to get more children into them.
National food and nutrition programs can be the difference between empty stomachs and good health. Access to these programs makes economic sense. Every $5 the federal government spends on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, generates $9.20 in local economic activity.
Every time we increase access to programs, federal funding flows into local communities. Orange County, Fla., used targeted marketing to increase summer meal participation by 76 percent last year. It was able to access more than $2 million.
Several states are following suit.With the backing of Gov. Bill Ritter, the Colorado Campaign to End Childhood Hunger helped increase the number of summer meals served by more than 25 percent from 2009 to 2010. By successfully lobbying for legislation to expand food stamp eligibility, End Childhood Hunger Washington helped raise food stamp participation by 64 percent, reaching an additional 370,000 people. And Gov. Martin O'Malley's Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in Maryland increased the number of low-income children eating summer meals by 17.4 percent in 2009.
Share Our Strength and the End Hunger Network are collaborating with communities where leaders are realizing that until they expand participation in food programs, they are shortchanging not just their children but also our nation. Public and private sectors should work together to make programs more effective.
Help for hungry children is surely a bipartisan cause. Congress can demonstrate its commitment by passing the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which would strengthen many of the most important hunger and nutrition programs, including school breakfast and summer meals. The bill passed the Senate in August and is awaiting House action. It will be weakened if we wait for the next Congress.
We have food. It's Thanksgiving. Let's act now to ensure that all of our children eat, learn, grow and thrive.
Actor Jeff Bridges is founder of the nonprofit End Hunger Network. Bill Shore founded and is executive director of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit working to make sure no child in America grows up hungry. They wrote this for The Washington Post.