Hungry in America: Family Sometimes Must Choose Between Paying Bills, Buying Food

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Child hunger is not only a health problem, but an educational problem, as well, according to Feeding America, which provides food and groceries to people at risk of hunger across the nation.

In the classroom, children who are hungry through age 3 cannot learn as much as fast or as well because Feeding America says chronic under nutrition and toxic stress harm their cognitive development during a critical period of rapid growth.

Also, hungry children do not perform as well academically in school because they are not well prepared and have difficulties concentrating. They also have more social and behavioral problems.

"Food insecurity can also cause anxiety in children," said Karrie Denniston, vice president of national programs for Feeding America. "We see kids not wanting to leave the classroom on Friday. They are worried about how they are going to get a meal over the weekend. They feel anxious and are often embarrassed about the situation at home. They may not want to have friends come over because they cannot offer them something to eat."

Feeding America has a BackPack Program that provides children with nutritious and easy-to-prepare food when other resources are not available. The program provides backpacks filled with food that is "child-friendly," non-perishable and easily consumed. They are discreetly distributed to children on the last day before the weekend or holiday vacation. In 2010, 5.8 million packs were given to children in close to 5,000 locations, the organizations said.

Hunger relief agencies say the problem is no longer confined to the urban poor.

"More and more people are coming in" said Maria Delsordo, communications director for Philabundance, a Philadelphia-based hunger-relief agency. "We are seeing people coming in that never had to get food assistance before -- the newly unemployed, the underemployed, families that have at least one parent working."

Food relief agencies are working hard to let the people who need aid know they are not alone, she said.

"What people are saying is things are getting progressively worse," Delsordo said. "People who are new to the situation find it hard to tell their stories. They don't know who to turn to or where to go."

Michael Marcincin said that his daughters make the family's tough situation easier to deal with.

"They are good kids," he said, "overall good kids. They do their chores. They help out around the house."

As the school year approaches, he said he and his wife are preparing.

"I do know they are going to need school supplies and clothes," he said. "So we cut back. We don't cut back on them. You know, you eat one plate of spaghetti instead of two."

Marcincin said the key is sustaining and surviving.

"You don't give up," he said. "Keep going. If you give up, you are giving up on your family."

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