Child hunger is increasing in Montana, and there's an urgent need to deal with this growing concern. No matter what personal or ideological beliefs anyone has, everyone will agree that children in Montana should not be hungry.

At the same time, there are options for developing solutions that are sustainable, affordable and need to be pursued. In the 2011 session, legislators have the opportunity to review the current situation contributing to child hunger and act to enhance our systems for feeding children.

Child poverty rates in Montana have risen from 20.6 percent in 2008 to 21.4 percent in 2009 - which is above the national average. This equates to over 92,000 children who are experiencing hunger and lack of access to nutritious foods at various times each week or month in Montana.

The average income of Montana families went from $43,654 in 2008 to $42,322 in 2009. Hunger is an income issue; however, hungry children can't wait for the economic climate of the state to improve so their families can provide enough healthy food.

Poor and hungry families struggle to meet basic needs, such as cost of housing, heating, utilities, medical bills, transportation, child care and other essentials which leave little money for food. The current state economy has left many families with job loss, reduced work hours and long periods of unemployment.

Studies by the Montana Food Bank Network show a number of strategies that families use so that their children can have food to eat. Sadly, stretching food dollars often includes lowering the quality of food, buying cheaper, calorie-dense foods and parents skipping their own meals. Eventually, they turn to local food banks and pantries and this number has been increasing rapidly.

At MFBN, the number of visits for emergency food by children in a six-month period went from 113,768 visits in 2009 to 165,443 visits in 2010, an increase of 45 percent. This increase in demand for food by children, in addition to adults, has stretched MFBN's resources to the limit.

The implications of food insecurity and hunger among children are enormous and unacceptable. A critical component to a healthy life is good nutrition from pre-natal stage to age 18. During this period of growth, intake of essential nutrients in the diet is vital, and forms a firm foundation towards a healthy adult life. When a child's nutrition is compromised, there are adverse effects leading to barriers towards a successful and productive future.

There is evidence-based research to show that hungry children are frequently ill, develop poor eating habits, at risk of childhood obesity and diabetes. The impact on academic achievement is equally serious, effecting cognitive and behavioral skills, and difficulty concentrating in the classroom. Studies have linked poor nutrition with lowered math and reading scores in standardized tests.

Children who are not ready to learn when they come to school or child care centers are at greater risk of poor academic success, at higher risk of not completing high school, and are less likely to be self-sufficient, financially stable adults. How can we improve the state's economy unless we protect and nurture our greatest resource - the future workers of the state?

Our policy makers have the opportunity to study the multiple dynamics that contribute to child hunger by passing House Joint Resolution 8, a joint resolution study of this issue. There are numerous private and public programs that make great efforts to reach all children. However, it is necessary to strengthen the collaboration between these programs. It will take a legislative body to pursue closing the gaps in services, improving efficiencies, increasing awareness of food programs, and removing the complex barriers families face in getting food for children. This bill will also promote nutrition education and the use of Montana agriculture in school food programs.

It is equally important that the Legislature provides funding through House Bill 221 for the rapidly escalating demand for emergency food that MFBN is coping with. This private nonprofit group has worked for years to survive on its own efforts, but the demand for food has far outweighed its capacity to feed people.

Until such time that the state can increase employment and create jobs that pay a livable wage for thousands of Montana families, it is imperative that we do not ignore the serious problem of childhood hunger.

Minkie Medora is chairwoman of the Food Security Council, Peggy Grimes is executive director of the Montana Food Bank Network and Katie Bark is a dietitian with the Montana Dietetic Association.


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