Almost one in every three children in Arizona – an estimated 454,000 – is at risk of food insecurity. For these children, life is a day-to-day challenge. Hunger impedes learning, can lead to depression and anxiety, and is a predictor of chronic illness.
That childhood hunger exists, in America and, particularly, in Arizona, is no surprise. But what might surprise you is where these children live. We have long assumed that childhood hunger is a condition of our urban areas, our inner cities, and perhaps also our rural areas – places like Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta.
In the wake of the 2008 economic crash, we now know we have assumed wrong. A new report released by Arizona Fair Share Education Fund finds that childhood hunger is growing much more quickly in America’s suburbs – not our inner cities or rural areas.
The report, Childhood Hunger in America’s Suburbs: The Changing Geography of Poverty, used eligibility for the National School Lunch Program, an indicator of both poverty and food insecurity, as a measuring stick. The report found that a strong plurality of students newly eligible for the free or reduced-cost school lunch program now lives in the suburbs: 48 percent. By comparison, 15 percent live in rural areas, 25 percent live in cities and 12 percent live in small- or mid-sized towns
Our research found that of public school children now eligible for the National School Lunch Program, nearly one-third now live in the suburbs. Nearly 6.5 million children were eligible for the school program during the 2012-13 school year; that’s more than the number of eligible students from rural areas and small and mid-sized towns combined.
Why is this important to know? It is important because we must change how we think about childhood hunger. It is no longer an issue that happens “somewhere else.” We must come to understand that “somewhere else” now means “where we live.”
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin once said, “If we can conquer space, we can conquer childhood hunger.”
And conquer hunger we must. Letting American children go hungry puts those children at great personal peril, and also puts at risk our education system, our economy and our country’s future. As America continues along the path of economic recovery, we must ensure that children at risk of hunger are not left behind.
Jamie Aldama is a city councilmember of the City of Glendale, and Chris Destiche is state organizer for Arizona Fair Share Education Fund, which works to make sure everyone gets, pays, and does their fair share; and plays by the same rules. Find out more at http://www.fairshareonline.org/edfund.