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People go hungry, not always when and where you expect

LAST WEEK, when a guy from the Huntington Area Food Bank told me they like cans with easy-open, pop-top lids to give to children, a chill went through me, despite the heat.

It's not like I didn't know some children are hungry and undernourished in West Virginia. I've been writing about low-income people and struggling families for more than 20 years.

Still, some images just stick. Some experiences help us focus.

The June 29 storm focused attention on, among other things, the shortage of food for many children and adults. It is an important issue to remember even as we continue to get back to normal.

Unfortunately, normal includes about 14.1 percent of West Virginia households that did not have enough food for a healthy and active life at some point during the year in 2010, the last time the survey was taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Even at that, West Virginia is right around the national average of 14.5 percent. Other states are much worse. Economic problems have made more families "food insecure." In 2007, the national rate had been steady for years around 11 percent.

Scott Frasure, development director of the Huntington Area Food Bank, said they like ready-to-eat donations of foods that are rich in protein and that require no heat or refrigeration to eat. They try to steer easy-open cans that require no can openers to kids.

The food bank regularly supplies food to students through nine high schools and participates in nine elementary school backpack programs. That's during the school year.

In addition to everything else, recent storms also disrupted efforts by Frasure and his colleagues to establish more summer feeding programs for children.

Think of this: West Virginia has about 200,000 children who receive free and reduced price school meals because their families have small incomes. But during the summer, only 17,000 children participate in summer feeding programs. While not every kid who receives free or reduced meals at school is short of food at home, some are.

Frasure's experience tracks with other findings in the USDA survey, including a few that might surprise you:

• Families reported more food insecurity when they were surveyed in August or September compared to April or December. Autumn, a traditional time of harvest and plenty, is not a time of relative abundance for people who struggle to have enough food.

• Researchers also measure the households with "very low food security." These families, 6.4 million households, or about 5.4 percent of the country, report actually reducing the amount of food they consume or disrupting normal eating patterns because they don't have enough food.

• Children are usually shielded from "very low food security," but need that was severe enough to cause disruptions in eating still affected 1 percent of American households with children in 2010, or about 386,000. Among families with children with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line, very low food security among children actually declined from 2.9 percent in 2009 to 2.1 percent in 2010.

• Families who have enough to eat spend about 27 percent more on food. This includes government help, indicating programs such as SNAP (food stamps) work as intended.

• Finally, the greatest share of households with food insecurity are headed by single moms, followed most closely by those headed by single dads. Single men and women rank next, followed by married couples. Food insecurity is a bigger problem in big cities and rural areas than in suburban areas.

Those of us fortunate enough to not worry about our next meal naturally tend to think about food drives and donations around the holidays. It is a time for reflection, gratitude and sharing.

But all this data reinforces what Frasure and other food program managers routinely say: Need exists all year, and for a variety of reasons, may even be more difficult to meet in summer, storm or no storm.

Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.

 


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