By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
An audacious plan is underway in Colorado to end childhood hunger by 2015.
Never mind that the economy is still in the tank and Colorado’s child poverty rate grew at the fastest rate in the country over the past 10 years, according to the 2011 Kids Count report.
Billy Shore is determined to reverse the trend.
Shore, who worked in Colorado years ago as a top aide in former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart’s presidential and senatorial campaigns, founded Share Our Strength in Washington, D.C., in 1984. To date, the nonprofit has raised and invested more than $315 million in the national fight against hunger.
Shore was horrified at images of starving people in Ethiopia back in 1984. But, he found hunger was prevalent in the U.S. as well. And while it seems counterintuitive, experts believe hunger and obesity go hand in hand.
While Colorado has the lowest adult obesity rate in the country, child obesity rates here are increasing at the second-fastest rate in the country, just behind Nevada. Many families who are struggling to afford enough food are not spending precious dollars on healthy fruits and vegetables. And when school is out of session, experts fear low-income children get few nutritious meals.
Shore says it’s unforgivable that hunger persists in the U.S. because the problem is eminently solvable. Congress has already set aside funds for school breakfasts and summer lunches for low-income children. The programs typically receive bipartisan support. But Colorado and other states are leaving several billion dollars on the table by not using those funds, Shore said.
“These kids are voiceless. They’re not only vulnerable. But they have no PAC representing them,” Shore said during a recent visit to Colorado to speak at the Colorado Children’s Campaign’s annual luncheon.
Indeed, an Englewood boy’s simple explanation for his hunger is both piercing and heartbreaking: “It feels like my tummy’s mad.” The boy is featured in a short film, The Lunchbox Express, which was unveiled at the Children’s Campaign Event. The film highlights a delivery program for summer lunches in Englewood.
Shore said if the unused breakfast and lunch funds instead had been earmarked to build weapons, a defense contractor long ago would have harnessed the federal funds.
“The craziest part of all of this is that money exists to do this,” Shore said. “This is D.C.’s best kept billion-dollar secret. We could buy milk from local dairy farmers…we know how to solve this problem.”
Shore is teaming up with governors in Colorado, Maryland and Arkansas to try to demonstrate that child hunger can end quickly if leaders dramatically increase access to already funded school breakfasts and summer lunches.
In Colorado Shore started working with former Gov. Bill Ritter in 2009. Share Our Strength is continuing to partner with Gov. John Hickenlooper. Share Our Strength also operates Cooking Matters, a program that brings 6-week classes on healthy low-cost cooking to families throughout Colorado. (Related story: Cooking healthy cuisine on a budget ) The number of Colorado sites that serve summer lunches has risen from 315 in 2010 to 392 this year, Shore said.
Child Poverty in Colorado
- Child poverty has doubled since 2000
- In 2009, 210,000 children or one in every sixe children in Colorado lived in poverty.
- About 20 percent of Colorado children live in homes where there isn’t enough money for food all the time.
- The number of children in homes with some food insecurity has grown 61 percent from 2001-03 to 2006-08 to 234,00 children.
- The rate of Colorado children who are overweight or obesity has increased at the second-fastest rate in the nation behind Nevada. colorado rate rose from 22 percent in 2003 to 27 percent in 2007, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health
- In the U.S., 45 percent of children living in poverty were overweight or obese compared to 22 percent of children living above 400 percent of the federal poverty line.
Source: 2011 KIDS COUNT in Colorado report and the Colorado Children’s Campaign
But Colorado remains one of the worst states in the country at providing summer lunches. Only about 7 percent of children who qualify for free lunch during the school year are receiving summer lunches.
“The meals are 100 percent reimbursable,” Shore said. “When it comes to kids who are hungry, we can get them nutritious food.”
Angela Glover Blackwell joined Shore in a roundtable discussion at the Children’s Campaign event. She is founder of PolicyLink, which pushes for social and economic equity, and is also chair of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s national advisory board for the Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity.
“Both obesity and hunger are driven by poverty,” Blackwell said. “Many poor people who are obese would be very hungry if they weren’t eating what they’re eating.”
She said many of the hungriest people are “living in the shadows,” including immigrants and their children who are fearful of seeking assistance due to their lack of documentation.
Glover Blackwell has been fighting to bring large grocery stores to urban areas for decades. Despite those efforts, she said African American communities continue to be the least served by full service stores.
“When you can’t find a grocery store or a farmer’s market, chances are you are probably in the black community,” Glover Blackwell said.
Despite a bleak outlook in some communities, Glover Blackwell is hopeful that several tested solutions can help drive down both child obesity and child hunger rates:
- Improving availability of nutritious foods in school.
- Boosting access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Ensuring at least one hour a day of physical activity for children.
- Giving children safe places to play outside of schools.
- Using subsidies or pricing incentives to encourage the purchase of fruits and vegetables.
- Halting ads that encourage children to buy unhealthy foods.
- Using design of the “built environment” to encourage physical activity.
The focus should be on making healthy choices the easy choice, Glover Blackwell said.
Chris Watney, president and CEO of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the state’s problems with both hunger and obesity are a surprise to many.
“Colorado is such a wonderful place to live,” Watney said, “and they think of Colorado as such a healthy place.
She said the reasons for hunger obesity and poverty are complex.
Watney believes that Colorado communities never fully recovered from the earlier recession. Meanwhile, Colorado’s inadequate education system is failing to give children solid academics that could give them “a lift out of poverty.”
Colorado tends to import well-educated, healthy adults, but is failing to grow its own healthy, accomplished young people, she said. “We aren’t always creating an environment for our own children to succeed.”
Both Shore and Glover Blackwell think that viewing hunger and obesity as opposite sides of the same coin will help bring solutions.
“When you live in poverty, you don’t have a lot of choices. You tend to buy energy in calories, which is cheaper than nutritious food,” Shore said.
“Kids in this country are not hungry because of lack of food. Kids are hungry and kids are obese because they lack access to nutritious food.”