Quad-city children face hunger and poor nutrition

By Åsa Björklund
Staff Writer

Hundreds of local children face hunger and poor nutrition in the coming months, partly because of the lack of free school lunches during summer break, and partly because the Weekend Family Food Project (WFFP) is running out of funding. Serving 450 children in 13 schools and childcare centers in the Quad-city area, the project provides weekend bags of nutritionally balanced food to low-income families with children up to five years old.

Photo by Claire Louge, First Things First.

The mention of hungry children may evoke stereotypical images of African children with protruding bellies. However, food insecurity, meaning not always knowing where your next meal will come from or if it will be nutritionally sound, is more common than most people think, according to Julie Meyers, project coordinator at WFFP, run by Open Door and the Coalition for Compassion and Justice, and funded by First Things First and the Yavapai County Community Foundation. In Arizona, 24 percent of children are food insecure — the third highest rate in the nation. This is usually related to poverty. In Yavapai County, 26 percent of households with children five years old and younger live in poverty. For single mothers with children in that age group, poverty increases to 62 percent.

Before weekends, “The kids ask ‘when do we get our bags?’” said April Booth, school nurse at the Lincoln Elementary School and the Washington Traditional School. She recalled a mother, whose kids were home sick on a Friday, who made the trip from Chino Valley just to get the weekend bag. “She said ‘we’re dependent on this food.’”

Ann Chavez, social worker at the Miller Valley Elementary School, is concerned that the Weekend Family Food Project is running out of funding.

“It’s a great program, it’s [filling] a basic human need,” said Chavez. However, as with any help, you can never be sure you have reached everyone. This takes a toll on social workers like Chavez. “I’m worried that I miss a kid, somebody who is silent.”

In addition, the summer break creates a dire situation, leaving children without any school meals.
“What this area really needs is more summer meal programs during the week,” said Meyers. Different organizations would have to collaborate, and then there is the problem of distributing the food to the children since school buses do not run in the summer.

Photo by Claire Louge, First Things First.

Thanks to the WFFP, the children have also acquired a taste for nutritional food such as fresh fruits, vegetables and milk, explained Booth. As a result, they are less often sick. “I don’t fill my office with illnesses anymore.” However, healthy food that tends to be more expensive is often not prioritized by low income families, though impact on children’s cognitive health is significant.

“Even moderately poor nutrition can really affect [the children’s] chance for development. It’s the age group where not having to [eat] Top Ramen every meal over the weekend makes a big difference,” said Meyers.

To help make nutritious food more available to children, volunteer or donate to WFFP. Contact Julie Meyers by e-mail at julesm1@gmail.com, or by phone, (928) 776-0353.

Open Door on 505 West Gurley Street, Prescott, welcomes food donations, Monday through Friday during office hours.

Miller Valley Elementary School welcomes volunteers on Fridays to carry food and prepare the children’s backpacks. Contact Ann Chavez at ann.chavez@prescottschools.com.

This article appeared in the May 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.

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