South Jersey has the state's highest rates of children who lack access to healthy and nutritious foods. Learn about The Press' commitment toward finding solutions to this important issue
Growing Up Hungry
Galloway Township is a large municipality on the northern border of Atlantic County.
Cookie-cutter style housing developments weave through dense wooded areas and wildlife preserves. A university, a major hospital and a rehabilitation center make up the center of town. Historic Smithville is a weekend destination to the east, while a winery invites people to the west.
The median household income for families in Galloway is $63,444, more than triple the income of a family of three living at the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But every afternoon, children ride their bikes, walk a couple miles under the hot summer sun or go with their parents to the park on Wrangleboro Road, where they sit at picnic tables and eat free lunches provided by a township nonprofit that helps feed children in the summer.
For some, it’s their first meal of the day.
“Childhood hunger looks like your kid, whoever you are reading this,” said Richard Uniacke, vice president of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey’s Southern Branch in Egg Harbor Township. “It comes in all shapes and sizes. You’re not going to pick them out of a crowd, because they are struggling in silence, as are their families.”
All four counties in The Press of Atlantic City’s coverage area — Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean — have the highest rates in the state of children who lack access to healthy and nutritious foods, both in quality and quantity, according to the Feeding America organization. For every six children in New Jersey, one struggles with hunger. In total, there were more than 330,000 of those children in 2014.
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An estimated 35 percent of children struggling with food insecurity live in a family that does not qualify for state and federal food assistance programs, according to Feeding America.
Professionals in the social services field use the term “food insecure” to refer to people who do not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. It’s an apt term to describe the experience of not knowing where your next meal will come from.
Hunger doesn’t always look like it sounds. Food-insecure children in the U.S. don’t often have distended bellies or skin stretched over their rib cages. Instead, hunger is seen in soaring childhood obesity rates, the lines at food pantries and in the greater availability of fast-food restaurants in low-income neighborhoods, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
Because of this increasing need, The Press is launching an extended series examining the issue of food insecurity for children in South Jersey. The project, called Growing Up Hungry, will appear in print at the end of each month. We have developed a special web page for stories, photo galleries, graphics and videos related to the struggle to feed our local kids. To access that content, visit pressofac.com/hungry.
Experts say the programs and benefits in place to help families are not enough to prevent every child from feeling hungry or food insecure. Better assistance, healthy-eating literacy, awareness education for communities and outreach are needed to solve the problem, they said.
Children who struggle with food insecurity may have delayed development, are more likely to require hospitalization, are at higher risk for chronic disease, may exhibit more behavioral problems and have trouble learning in school, according to Feeding America.
Researchers at Drexel University found that food insecurity during childhood may lead to toxic stress, a prolonged stress caused by several factors, including a family’s economic hardship. The researchers’ study found that this toxic stress followed children into adulthood and contributed to their inability to nourish their own children.
And so the cycle repeats.
“Some are low-income families who are working multiple jobs and struggling to put food on the table,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “New Jersey is expensive, especially for housing. You don’t have to live in poverty to struggle with basics like food.”
There are safety nets and solutions statewide and in South Jersey to prevent child food insecurity. In the summer, when free and reduced-fee breakfasts and lunches are not offered at school, children and their families can get meals through programs such as the Advocates’ Food for Thought and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.
For people who live at a certain level of poverty and disability, families may be eligible for food assistance such as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (more commonly known as food stamps) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits.
But the volunteers, organization directors and residents in South Jersey say it is not enough to prevent all children from going hungry or becoming food insecure.
“Within five miles, you can be in a more affluent community than an impoverished one,” said David Calderetti, project director at Cumberland Cape Atlantic YMCA. “Food insecurity is a real thing. It doesn’t matter if you live in an impoverished community or a middle-class community. It’s there.”
Food insecurity is a national issue. It’s a problem in New Jersey, in its counties, in its communities. It exists in Atlantic City, Pleasantville, Bridgeton and Vineland. It also exists in Galloway, Linwood, Upper Township and Egg Harbor Township.
“They say that people have many problems, but someone who is hungry just has one,” Uniacke said. “No child should ever go hungry.”