Imagine going to bed every night with a deep gnawing feeling in your stomach. An emptiness so strong that it will not let you sleep, concentrate in school, focus at work, or think about anything else. An emptiness that you know will be back tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after.

In an October 2013 interview with Melissa Harris-Perry, Tulane political science reporter and MSNBC commentator, twelve-year-old Jahzaire Sutton described how hunger affected him at school. Sutton recalls, “I wasn’t able to focus on my schoolwork…and it was very frustrating, because it’s all I could think of, food, when I went to school, because I wasn’t able to eat breakfast at home.”

Sutton’s mother, like many parents of hungry children, ate less to provide her children with more. Sutton relates, “She would sacrifice for me and my little brother. And sometimes I would…try to make something to eat for her, so she could still have something to eat. It kind of affected me, because also, food is on my mind, but my mom is on my mind, because she’s not really eating as much as I am.”

While at school, twelve-year-olds should be concentrating on their classes, not worrying about their families’ next meal. During the summer, there is often a spike in child hunger as students no longer have access to school lunch, which can be, in many cases, their only meal.

This is childhood hunger, a reality for nearly 16 million children in America, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Though childhood hunger in our nation is often pushed to the side or simply not recognized, it is an increasing issue with many causes, debilitating effects, and, thankfully, solutions that we can contribute to.


Not in My Backyard

Childhood hunger is a problem most of us expect to find in developing countries. We see it as a dark figure, crouched in the paths between blackened dust-coated buildings, preying on innocent children who walk miles on a dirt road to get to school, a reality distant from the immense food production, successful transportation systems, and strong infrastructure of America. However, this is not true; sadly, childhood hunger has a strong grip on our nation of abundance.

The root cause of childhood hunger’s death grip is economics. Often, families with food insecurities are forced to choose between paying the bills and buying food. Inevitably, food is the one to go. Many of these families are barely holding their heads above the poverty line, and an unexpected death or illness is what dunks them under. When faced with the additional costs sustained from hospital or funeral bills, they simply do not have the means to feed themselves sufficiently. Additionally, many children who live in poverty stricken areas do not have access to the foods they need to live healthy lives. The shelves of their local grocery stores are stocked with inexpensive processed, packaged, premade meals, while the produce section is a motley collection of bruised fruits and wilting vegetables. Their families are forced to turn to fast food because they cannot afford the basic elements of home cooked meals. Though these children may have access to food, they lack access to the fruits and vegetables that will provide nutrition and allow them to grow, a key factor in childhood hunger.

Unfortunately, this famine is not fading away; it is actually increasing. Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, reported providing food for 14 million children in 2010, a drastic increase from the 9 million children they were feeding only four years prior. This increase has been blamed on a volatile economy and job loss that is notably hurting families. Whatever the causes are, childhood hunger needs to be stopped, as its effects do not end with grumbling stomachs.

Food insecurities can affect children birth to eight years old far into their future, according to the World Food Bank. Hunger hurts a child’s academics by making them unable to concentrate in class, more likely to act out, and slower to develop socialization skills.


Beyond the Childhood Years

Children’s nourishment in their first years of life impacts their ability to learn, think analytically, communicate, and fight diseases. Nutrients are first given to ensure survival, then growth, and lastly learning. When the body does not have enough food in the early years, it has to choose how to use the limited nutrition it does have available. The consequences of this, according to Dr. Reynaldo Martorell, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of International Nutrition and chair of the Hubert Department of Global Health at the Rollins School of Public Health (RSPH) at Emory University, include delayed motor and physical development, lower IQ, decreased attention, and lower educational achievement. If ignored, these affects will not only hurt the victims of childhood hunger in their youth, but also as they grow older. Being unable to communicate as effectively as their peers makes it harder to succeed in school, and, later, in job interviews. Decreased attention affects one’s ability to pursue long term goals while reduced IQs make standardized testing more of a challenge. These factors create a recipe for rejection when it comes to college admittance, thereby threatening the chances of a bright and successful future.

But if those who have been affected by this endemic are helped, particularly early on, their situation can be reversed. According to Dr. Martorell, “Considerable evidence indicates that substantial improvements can be achieved, even in severely malnourished children, if appropriate steps are taken at a young age to satisfy nutritional and psychosocial needs.”


A Common Enemy

Childhood hunger is an enemy of every nation, every religion, every ethnicity, and every person. It does not discriminate. Luckily, this enemy has more than one kryptonite we can use to conquer it.

Throughout the United States, there are many groups that work incessantly to end this epidemic. Feed My Starving Children, Muslims Against Hunger, and Stop Hunger Now are just a few organizations that welcome volunteers. Whether packing boxes or distributing food, these volunteer opportunities afford you and your friends the chance to meet up and make the world a little bit better in the process. These groups always appreciate donations, whether of time or money, and many are tax deductible.

This is a battle even those of us still in school can help fight. Sutton says being offered a snack or piece of lunch by a friend is always a nice thing for a child who has been going to school hungry. If your kids have a friend who isn’t getting the food he or she needs, pack an extra sandwich or bowl of pasta for them to share. For older kids, bake sales and run-athons are a fun, easy way to raise money for the cause. Schools are usually eager to help and sometimes will even provide a loan to jump start your efforts.

Childhood hunger is a fierce enemy – one who lurks not only in far away indigent countries, but also in the empty shelves of our neighbor’s pantry and at our children’s schools. But it is an enemy that can be vanquished. It is a foe that can be slain with one weapon whose power should not be underestimated. And that weapon is our humanity.

Taskeen Khan is an award-winning author based in the Chicago area. She also writes for The Glenbard and Islamic Horizons.