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One way to reduce adversity faced by children? Feed them during the summer

Posted June 08, 2014, at 10:22 a.m.
BDN

Poverty is a growing problem, and it is particularly devastating to children, whose brains need fuel to grow so they can develop into healthy adults.

But poverty affects more than brains. Poverty is linked to chronic disease — including obesity, heart disease and depression. Obesity is further linked to hypertension, heart disease and stroke. These are all major killers in our country.

Poverty is one of the major adverse childhood experiences, which are hardships that are tough to bear — such as poverty, parental separation, unemployment, alcoholism, neglect and abuse. Adverse childhood experiences are known in both children and adults to be tied to diseases — such as obesity and depression. The more adverse childhood experiences one has, the greater the risk of disease and early death.

Poverty and other adverse childhood experiences can lead to disease in our bodies by causing chemical changes in the brain that can poison healthy thinking. Adverse childhood experiences can also damage blood vessels over time and increase risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. This cascade of negative effects can begin at birth and multiply over time; so, it is important to “nip them in the bud.” It is prudent to start addressing poverty in children, to give children a healthy start in life.

One in five Maine children lives in poverty. It is our ethical obligation to eliminate poverty, particularly among children, who have their whole lives ahead of them. Food is a basic human need, but too many children don’t have access to enough. Overall in Maine, 47 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school. That rate has been increasing every year, up from 33 percent in 2004.

If all children can access nutritious food, we can have healthier children who will grow up to be healthier workers in our communities. We need a healthy workforce in Maine.

About half of the children in my pediatric office tell me that they don’t like vacations from school because they get hungry and don’t have enough food. Can you imagine not liking vacation?

I recently met a grandmother who was raising three grandchildren while working full-time at a local business where she made just a little more than minimum wage after 10 years. She barely earns enough money to buy food for her grandchildren. That week, she didn’t have enough money to feed herself properly because she had to pay for gas to get a grandchild to the doctor’s office.

Poverty is associated with both food insecurity and obesity. Poor families have limited options for food, and the food that is affordable tends to be higher in calories and less nutritious. Higher-calorie foods, such as those processed with high fructose corn syrups (whose costs are subsidized), are cheaper, easier to get and can add on the pounds at an early age.

We have the power to lower the negative impact of adverse childhood experiences by investing in programs that build children’s resilience and coping skills. Any activity that contributes to building childhood confidence and competence — whether parenting classes, Big Brothers Big Sisters, YMCA programs, sports leagues, theater and art programs, and other community activities — improve the brain and enhance the body of a child. But food also matters. Another key way we can mitigate the impact of adverse childhood experiences is by doing all we can to make sure children have access to nutritious food throughout the year, not just when school is in session.

It’s a common-sense investment. Whenever there is the opportunity to contribute to children in any way, it pays off over time. Research has shown that any dollar spent on children in their preschool years yields a 16 percent return on investment to society over time. That’s because children need to be nurtured to be healthy and happy citizens in our communities.

There is federal legislation pending that aims to provide food in the summer for hungry children. The Stop Child Summer Hunger Act would, through an electronic benefits transfer card, provide $150 for each child eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, allowing their families to purchase food during the summer months.

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports this, and constituents need to tell their representatives in Congress to support it, too, for the sake of Maine’s hungry children.

Dr. Janice L. Pelletier is a pediatrician who practices in Bangor and the president-elect of the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

 

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