August 24, 2011 -- In high school, Katherine Foronda trained herself not to feel hungry until after the school day had ended. She wasn't watching her weight or worrying about boys seeing her eat.
She just didn't have any food to eat or any money to buy it.
"I thought, if I wasn't hungry during class I'd be able to actually focus on what we were learning,'' said Foronda, now 19.
Every day, children in every county in the United States wake up hungry. They go to school hungry. They turn out the lights at night hungry.
That is one of the stunning key findings of a new study to be released Thursday by Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks and the largest hunger charity in the country.
As many as 17 million children nationwide are struggling with what is known as food insecurity. To put it another way, one in four children in the country is living without consistent access to enough nutritious food to live a healthy life, according to the study, "Map the Meal Child Food Insecurity 2011."
Those hungry children are everywhere, and with the uncertain economy, the numbers are only growing, experts say.
The consequences of malnutrition can be severe. Several studies have shown that food insecurity affects cognitive development among young children. And for older children, students like Foronda, school performance is affected. Additional research shows that with hunger comes more frequent sickness and higher healthcare costs.
Medical research has shown that lack of nutrition can permanently alter a child's brain architecture, stunting intellectual capacity and a child's ability to learn and interact with others.
"The consequences and costs of child hunger make addressing this issue an economic and societal imperative, in addition to an obvious moral obligation," said Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America.
Feeding America's study, funded by ConAgra Foods, is based on 2009 statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs 15 food aid programs, including the nationwide free and subsidized school lunch program and WIC, a supplemental food program that provides tailored food supplements to pregnant women and families with children under age 5 whose household income is less than 185 percent of the gross federal poverty limit. That's an annual gross income of $41,348 for a family of four.
In fact, a shocking 49 percent of all babies born in the U.S. are born to families receiving food supplements from the WIC program, according to Jean Daniel, spokesperson for the USDA.
Previously, the only numbers available to illustrate the scope of child food insecurity across the nation were figures broken down by state.
But the newly available county-by-county numbers are aimed at helping local and federal providers of food aid better reach the people who need it.
The study also breaks down child food insecurity rates by congressional district, which could send a powerful message to Washington. The proposed House budget for 2012 includes substantial cuts to food aid programs in the 2012 budget cycle. The cuts could affect up to 350,000 recipients of the WIC program alone. The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides agricultural products to food banks to pass on to the poor, is also facing a proposed $50 million cut, representing one fifth of the budget for this program.
For many who are struggling to make ends meet, the food banks may be the only place to turn. According to the Feeding America study, of the 17 million children living in food-insecure households nationwide, almost 4 million live in households earning more than the official poverty limit and are therefore not eligible for federal food aid programs.
The proposed cuts, if passed, would be disastrous for many families, experts say.
"As we deal with all the financial issues facing our nation, we can't balance our budget on the backs of poor and hungry children," said Escarra.
Other findings from Feeding America's study:
_In 314 counties around the country, one third of the children in the county are living in food-insecure households.
_Nineteen counties are home to more than 100,000 children living in food-insecure households. And three of those counties have more than 300,000 food-insecure children.
_Steele County, N.D., has the lowest number of children at risk of hunger, at 7 percent.
_Starr and Zavala counties in Texas, near the border with Mexico, have the highest rates, with over 50 percent of the children in those counties living in food-insecure households.
For Katherine Foronda, who spent many of her days in high school subsisting on crackers, it was a drop-out prevention program with a food aid component that helped her put hunger behind her.
Early on in high school, with her hunger distracting her from her studies, she failed an English class. Rather than repeating the class, she was given the option of taking an afterschool life skills course, which offered meals to attendees each day and sent them home with food supplies each weekend.
She also gained new insight into the possibilities for her own future, learning from a mentor that college was within her reach, despite her family's economic circumstances.
With food to eat and not just a little bit of hope, she started performing better in classes, and founded a program that offered food support to the student body in her high school. She won a scholarship to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is now a sophomore.
The program she started at her high school will enter its third year when school begins later this month. Click here for full coverage of Hunger at Home: Crisis in America