“They come in starving,” says Darah Kerpka. “The past couple of years, I have noticed that there is such a difference when a child is hungry and when they’re not hungry.”
Darah operates the afterschool Kids Cafe program at the West Nashville Dream Center in Nashville. Sponsored by Preston Taylor ministries, the Kids Cafe is one of many Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee child feeding programs responding to the ongoing need to provide food to children struggling with hunger in our area.
“There are definitely children I’ve had where I know that this is the one meal they’ll get that day,” said Darah.
Identifying the symptoms of child food insecurity
The hard reality is that one in six children in our community is food insecure – unsure of when or where their next meal will come from. Limited access to regular meals and healthy foods can have a negative impact on a child’s development and future potential. However, despite the many signs, it is very difficult to spot child hunger.
“Food insecurity can present in children in various ways making it hard to identify,” said Caroline Pullen, RD, Nutrition Manager at Second Harvest. “Kids who don’t get enough to eat often have behavioral problems, specifically aggression, anxiety and depression.”
In fact, according to Caroline, some children have been misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) when, in fact, their behavioral problems were linked to hunger. She also said children facing hunger tend to struggle in school, as food insecurity is linked to poor memory and ability to concentrate.
The symptoms are also physical – and sometimes permanent – including poor growth rates and developmental delays.
“Clinically children struggling with hunger are likely to have iron deficiency anemia, poor dental health, and poor overall health,” said Caroline. “Long-term nutritional deficiencies can cause stunted growth and osteoporosis. Food insecure children are also more likely to struggle with obesity later in life as well as diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.”
Families struggling with food insecurity often rely on cheap, non-nutritious foods to feed their families, according to Caroline, and while the children in these households may be get plenty of calories, their diets severely lack the important nutrients they need.
“We are seeing higher rates of diet-related diseases, like type-2 diabetes,” said Caroline. “In the past, these rarely occurred before adulthood.”
Programs with purpose
To address this need, Second Harvest has various child feeding programs that give children at-risk of hunger access to the foods they need to learn and grow:
- At-Risk Afterschool Meal Program: For children who don’t have dinner waiting at home, this program ensures kids get a balanced meal or hearty snack after school.
- BackPack: There are children who dread the weekend because there isn’t enough food at their house. BackPacks provide easy-to-prepare food for at-risk children on weekends.
- Kids Cafe: We have several programs that serve hungry children, but Kids Café has a unique educational component.
- School Food Pantry: School pantries are key to our efforts to end childhood hunger.
- Summer Food Service Program: Summer is often the hungriest time of year for families with children, since suddenly they can no longer depend on free school breakfasts and lunches.
“Children need to be eating all the food groups but especially need to be eating lean protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy dairy sources,” said Caroline. “By eating a good variety of foods, children can get all the nutrient needs for growth and development.”
Feeding the future
At the West Nashville Dream Center Kids Cafe, Darah has seen first-hand the difference a nutritious meal can make in the behavior and development of the children she serves.
“A lot of time, especially in the classroom, I notice such a behavior difference of when a child has eaten versus when they haven’t,” Darah said. “It’s such a joy to be able to first provide a meal, and provide a healthy meal, a substantial meal.”