As the holidays approach, a sobering reminder about hunger

As we gather with friends and family during the holiday season, we are reminded of how fortunate we are. But while the season is a time for celebrations, it’s also a time for reflection.

A report released this week by East Boston based Project Bread is a sober reminder that there are over a half million people in the state struggling to put food on their tables and need help fast.

Project Bread, the state’s leading anti-hunger organization, said the trends described in its annual report on hunger are caused primarily by high unemployment and a weakened economy.

“The current economic problems are driving a crisis in food insecurity that is broader and deeper than we’ve seen before in this state,” said Executive Director of Project Bread Ellen Parker. “There is every indication that hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts citizens will need help to cover the basics – including many who have never needed help before.”

Parker said most alarming is that food insecurity has found its way into middle class suburbs and has driven low-income people further into crisis.

“No one has been left untouched by the economic downturn. Lost jobs,” said Parker. “Lost savings. Lost homes. Not surprisingly, over 8.3 percent of households in Massachusetts struggle with “food insecurity,” a measurement that captures the degree to which an individual or family cannot obtain adequate nutritious food for a healthy life.”

Food insecurity with hunger, which is the most serious condition, is primarily found in low-income communities where the percentage is six times higher than the statewide average. Field research conducted by Project Bread indicates that food insecurity numbers to be issued in 2010 will dwarf current data as they capture the full impact of the economic crisis we’re in.

The report argues for a public health approach and asks that the state continue to bring systemic solutions to scale – especially healthy school and summer food programs for kids. These programs are designed to help entire populations of low-income children while they also bring federal dollars into the Commonwealth.

Project Bread’s findings also show that in 2009, Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline, which links hungry people with food in their neighborhood, experienced a 31 percent increase in calls. The hotline answered 49,000 calls from hungry people in 2009 as compared to slightly more than 37,000 for the same period a year ago. Survey research of 11,000 low-income families in health centers, conducted by Partners HealthCare and sponsored by Project Bread, revealed severe consequences to health, growth, and learning from hunger. Food pantries and soup kitchens funded by Project Bread through The Walk for Hunger served 57.3 million meals last year, an increase of 32 percent from the year before.

Project Bread’s report said, because the scope of the problem has changed, there is a need for systemic hunger solutions that are bigger, broader, and more effective and bring federal dollars into Massachusetts that serve entire populations of food-insecure people.

“Project Bread recognizes the great strides the Commonwealth has made in maximizing participation in federal nutrition programs including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), school and summer meals programs, and Women, Infants and Children (WIC),” said Parker. “However, it calls for bringing participation in these programs to scale so that every eligible person is served.”

Project Bread sees schools as the most significant anti-hunger program for low-income children because the meals are federally reimbursed and can be made nutritious and non-stigmatizing.

“Low-income children rely on school meals for up to 55 percent of their daily calories, but school lunch and breakfast programs could potentially protect tens of thousands of low-income children from food insecurity and boost students’ health and capacity to learn if they were brought to scale,” said Parker. “Children who are poorly fed do not learn as well in school and are more prone toward obesity and associated health problems, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.”

The report points to the need to provide state-of-the-science nutrition to low-income children by enhancing the quality of school food. The report points to preliminary findings from a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, sponsored by Project Bread, that children will eat healthy food, including whole grains, breads, pastas, fresh fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, and when this food is offered in an appealing way, participation in the lunch program is 17 percent higher, meaning more students eat a quality lunch that is federally reimbursed.

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