Food

This Is the County With the Worst Childhood Hunger in America

In some parts of Arizona, the child hunger rate is twice as high as it is nationally.

hungry little girl
Photo Credit: EduardSV/Shutterstock

David Martinez vividly remembers a boy who visited a mobile food pantry in Apache County, Arizona, where fresh fruits and vegetables were available for free to those who needed them.

“He was maybe five or six, and he was so excited about getting an orange,” said Martinez, an advocacy and outreach specialist at the Phoenix-based St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance. “You’d think he would be more concerned about getting an Xbox. But he was really excited about oranges. A kid should be excited about learning and playing and growing, not worried about where their next meal is coming from.”

When Feeding America issued its annual Map the Hunger Gap, Apache and four other counties atop the northern part of Arizona—stretching the full expanse from the eastern state line to the west—were the darkest shade of green included on the map’s legend. The color indicated that more than 30 percent of kids in those areas are food insecure, meaning they live in households that experience limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods. Apache County, a long, narrow strip in the northeast corner of Arizona, includes parts of the Navajo Nation as well as the Zuni and Fort Apache Native American reservations. There, 42 percent of children—9,050 kids—are food insecure, twice the national rate.

There isn’t much out there in Northeast Arizona, Martinez explained. “When I say ‘rural,’ most people think farms and ranches. Arizona rural is very desolate, especially in the northeast part of the state,” he said. “You really don’t get a grasp of how rural these parts are until you see it.” He described a beautiful but sparsely populated landscape with communities clustered in chapter houses, towns, and villages—some of which are thousands of years old. Traveling to a major population center can be a substantial drive—an hour or two, or more—and those destinations may not have a grocery store.

“There’s still very few amenities. There are not very many grocery stores. Running water is very limited,” Martinez said. “It is definitely a different world.” In recent years, some extra federal money coming to schools and antihunger groups have helped to make up some of the difference—but that funding may dry up if Congress makes proposed changes to the federal Child Nutrition Programs.

That world includes schools where 100 percent of the children qualify for subsidized lunches. Martinez, who previously taught middle school, said he could identify hungry children in the classroom by their appearance: brittle hair, sallow skin more apt to bruise and break, weight loss or, conversely, obesity—and behavior that can be, in turns, aggressive, anxious, or distracted.

“They’re wondering where their next meal is coming from instead of being a kid,” he said. Oranges over Xboxes. “And that’s even if the child makes it to school in the first place.”

The United Food Bank, which also provides food aid throughout the state, sends kids home from school on Friday with packs of food to get them through the weekend, but those individual rations end up being split among a family. “This is really the Third World among us,” Ginny Hildebrand, the nonprofit’s CEO, told USA Today.

Nearly half a million children in Arizona meet the income eligibility requirements for the free and reduced lunch program, yet less than 15 percent of them are able to access meals during the summer months when school is not in session. Agencies like St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance were able to provide more meals to more hungry kids after 2010’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill. Five years ago, St. Mary’s served 1,500 daily after-school and summer meals. Now it serves 6,000, Martinez said.

But that progress is now in jeopardy. Congress reviews and reauthorizes federal child nutrition programs every five years, and the passage of the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization is already overdue—and the version written by House GOP leaders threatens, among other things, to undercut the Community Eligibility Provision. One of the most successful components of the bill, that provision allowed high-poverty schools or districts to serve all students free meals, regardless of their eligibility, by demonstrating that at least 40 percent of their students were certified for free meals through other federal programs, such as food stamps. It fed more kids with less paperwork and zero stigma.

The House Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill would jack up the qualifying threshold from 40 percent to 60. Because that 40 percent threshold doesn’t come close to capturing all the needy kids, Politico calculated the change would mean even “schools with between 65 and 96 percent of their students qualifying for nutrition assistance would likely have to drop CEP.”

Matt Herrick, director of communications at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is highly critical of the proposed change. He issued a statement, published in full by The Lunch Tray, saying the reauthorization plan is, “harmful to children’s health, heaps administrative costs on schools, and plans to bury parents in more bureaucratic red tape, all while subsidizing well-off children at the expense of our less fortunate kids who need help.”

Proposed measures like this make it harder for agencies like St. Mary’s to do their real work, Martinez said. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for smaller nonprofits, to remove as much paperwork as possible, so that we’re able to focus less on pushing paper and more on feeding hungry children,” he said.

This article originally appeared on TakePart.com. Reprinted with permission.

Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appetit and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn.

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