Hungry at the holidays
December 21st, 2010
09:11 AM ET
Share this on:

CNN’s “In Focus” series explores ways people are giving of their time, their resources and their love. Watch the CNN photojournalist special “Giving in Focus” Christmas Day at 4 p.m. ET.

Heaping platters of turkey, bowls of gravy-slathered mashed potatoes, endless pies and more than plenty for leftovers; for millions of children across the United States, a meal like this is as far-fetched a Christmas fantasy as Santa actually dropping down their chimney.

Winter break is anything but a wonderland for children in many of the nation's estimated 44 million food insecure families, who rely on school lunch for sustenance.

Nearly 16 percent of US households with children were food insecure during 2009, according to the most recently published United States Department of Agriculture figures, meaning that they did not have consistent access to adequate food for active, healthy lives for all household members. CNN Money reports that 14 percent of the nation's population - or 1 out of 7 people - is now living on food stamps.

Chef Bill Telepan sees the real-time effect of these economic stresses while school is still in session. In addition to his own restaurant, the eponymously-named Telepan, he serves as executive chef of Wellness in the Schools, a non-profit organization that works alongside the New York City school system to bring healthier food and nutritional education to children in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

The kids, he said, often show up hungry. "They'll polish off their meal, but they're allowed to get a second meal in public school - it's called a 'hungry meal.' It's generally a sandwich - peanut butter and jelly or cheese - and there are always those good-hearted lunch people who will give the kids whatever they want, which I think is a great thing. I wouldn't be surprised if the kids took that extra sandwich home with them - and you'd be surprised to realize how many of the lunch workers are hungry at home themselves."

Hunger, to put it plainly, hurts. A fact sheet published by national non-profit hunger relief organization Share Our Strength outlines the physical and academic perils into which food insecurity places children - including more frequent illness and hospitalization, slower recovery times and impaired learning ability. It takes an emotional toll as well, with increased behavioral problems, levels of aggression and anxiety, more frequent suspensions and difficulties getting along with other children.

They're not the only ones taking the stress home with them at the holidays. Donald Miller, who oversees public relations for Island Harvest, the largest hunger relief organization on Long Island, is seeing tremendous shortfalls in the program's resources this year.

He told Eatocracy, "Prior to the start of the holiday season – the benchmark would be the number of turkeys requested for Thanksgiving and Christmas and this year, it came in at an astounding 42,000, whereas last year the requests were for about 25,000. We've taken in around 12,000 so far, so we're really behind the eight ball."

Island Harvest's supplies come largely from private and company donations, local farmers and food drives. People have less to give this year - and much more need. "People wouldn't think that in a wealthy region like this that there are pockets of hunger. You have people who aren't just unemployed, but are working in jobs that are paying less. People who are underemployed are waiting until the sun goes down to go to the local food pantry and ask for a handout. That's hard for a lot of people to do. The middle class are the new people going to food banks."

The 1,600 children who benefit from Island Harvest's Weekend Backpack Program may or may not be aware of the emotional toll is taking on their parents; for the most part, according to the program's CEO Randi Dresner, they're just happy they're getting fed. She said, "The Backpack Program was started a couple of years ago to address the problem of children on free or reduced lunch, who have been identified by their schools as being at risk of having nothing to eat over the weekend."

Before school vacations, such as a winter break, the organization doubles the number of packs they send home with kids - effectively offering an extra weekend's work of food. There are four meals in a standard pack. They're paid for, rather than donated, in order to assure consistency, provide for households without access to microwaves, and allow children to prepare the meals for themselves. A typical pack would include two portions of cereal, two shelf-stable milks, healthy snacks such as fruit cups, or healthy cookies or crackers and two lunch meals, such as a tuna or another protein product in a can with a snap-off lid, as well as educational material.

Even though the program did manage to distribute 47,000 packs of food last year, Dresner is still aware of the shortfalls. "We know that they're coming up against the holidays, and great - we could feed them for the first weekend of the vacation, but what about the rest of the time? It's an expensive program for us and what we've we been able to do through funding is at least give the kids an extra pack - a little bit more nutrition than they would have had."

As for the emotional and social factors, Dresner said they're top of mind for her organization. "It's funny; kids have a different take on the program than their parents might. In the beginning, we used to use the word 'stealth.' We'd find someone in each of the schools who would discreetly give out these packs of food to the kids who were selected to be part of the program."

"Soon after, we went in to visit, and the kids were screaming, 'Hey, Mrs. So-And-So! Am I getting my pack of food for this weekend?' They were proud of it. We've even had cases where other kids saw what was going on and came to the faculty to ask if they could become part of it. I'm sure the older students are struggling with it, but in the elementary school, it's really thought of in a whole different way."

The need for this supplemental nutrition is hardly going away, and Island Harvest's program is far from the only of its kind. Telepan said that the public school cafeterias in which he operates Wellness in the Schools will be running their usual summer meals-style program to feed hungry students throughout the holidays. This year, Share Our Strength launched the No Kid Hungry program, an awareness and action campaign which works with many other supplemental food programs around the country to provide nutritious, kid-friendly food after school, and over weekends and holidays when school is out.

The group has made a public pledge to end child hunger by 2015, but even with President Obama's recent signing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act - a $4.5 billion measure that provides more money to poor areas to subsidize free meals, requires schools to abide by health guidelines drafted by the USDA, and increases the reimbursement rate for school lunches - it's an uphill battle and calls for everyone's involvement.

"The bill a good start," said Top Chef judge and childhood hunger activist Tom Colicchio, who testified before Congress on behalf of the bill earlier this year - albeit in a larger form. "However, it's just the beginning. This reform is a long way down the road, and it's going to call for systemic change. It's not something that can be solved at the charity level - you can't just go to one event dinner, pat yourself on the back and be done with it."

He echoed the sentiment of nearly everyone involved in the cause, "It doesn't just end after the holidays, either. Hunger is a twelve-month problem."

Next entry »
« Previous entry
soundoff (631 Responses)
  1. Christopher Burgess

    I opted to join Libby's Food's virtual canned food drive and raise funds, which Libby's matched for Feeding Ameica – $1 = 14 meals. Feeding America found an additional $1.5 match and our modest effort tallied in with 90,000 meals to help those who are food insecure. A drop in the bucket, but an important one for those 90,000 meals which hit the table. Here's my post: To Give is Devine, Thank you for Giving: My thanks to you for your Corporate Social Responsibility as evidence by your Virtual Canned Food Drive – My thanks to you "To Give is Devine, Thanks for Giving"
    Thank you,

    December 23, 2010 at 8:18 am |
  2. Samantha Jones

    Most people on Food Stamps are OBESE. CUT Medicaid, CUT Food Stamps, and CUT Welfare and people will find ways to Work to Feed Themselves. STOP the Democrats from Stealing from the Hardworking Taxpayers to give to the Lazy, Obese, Deadbeats on Medicaid, Welfare, and Food Stamps.

    December 22, 2010 at 9:10 pm |
  3. Dr Bill Toth

    I am proud to work with a program called Nourish the Children. I do my small part and encourage others to do the same. Because I remember what it was like to go to bed hungry. If we each reach and and do what we can each day and keep marching forward together we can make a difference. Live with Intention,

    December 22, 2010 at 5:22 am |
  4. Tee Jay

    Samantha = troll. Before you say another word, you need to open your eyes and read every post on the board. Those who NEED food stamps try to stretch their allotment to last the whole month. While filling, mac/cheese, potatoes, dry beans, TV dinners, freezer entrees, etc are only marginally nutritious and high in salt and fat, thus contributing to health concerns. So what is the option? Eat healthy half the time and starve the rest, or eat what you can afford throughout the month? Live off of mayo and saltine crackers for 4 days and then tell me how it feels. Never mind, I already know.

    December 22, 2010 at 12:20 am |
  5. Phil

    Please google "starving children pictures" and get some perspective. Children in this country, regardless of socioeconomic background, grow up to be big and tall with straight legs and not to mention sexually matured quite early. I just don't see a problem here.

    December 21, 2010 at 11:59 pm |
  6. Phil

    When I was a kid, my parents often told me to finish my plate because there are starving children in Africa. I see starving children in Africa who look like literally skin over bones, and I see the children in the poor neighborhood of this coutry grow to be big and strong and muscular. And I ask myself, is there really a problem here, or is there a problem of people getting used to being over-fed?

    December 21, 2010 at 11:40 pm |
  7. GC

    I teach 2nd grade in a low-income kids are always hungry. They get school breakfast (it's a joke...not enough food to fill them up for a day of learning) and lunch (another joke). There are rules to breakfast (only 1 milk/juice/food item per student) but I let them have as much as they want of the milk and juice and have to raffle off the rest of the food because there is not enough to go around. The cafeteria is just going to throw away the leftovers. They also get a fruit/veggie snack every other afternoon. A lot of my students take it home for their siblings. It makes me sad to think that they may not be getting enough to eat during the winter break. I think I've found my cause...

    December 21, 2010 at 11:17 pm |
  8. Samantha Jones

    Democrats are thieves that steal from the Hard Working Taxpayers to pay for their misguided Welfare and Food Stamps for the lazy and deadbeats. Quit Stealing from the Hard Working, and get a JOB. Democrats deserve the high unemployment of 9.8% for Voting in Harry Reid with 14% unemployment in Nevada. Enjoy the Consequences of your Vote.

    December 21, 2010 at 9:05 pm |
  9. Samantha Jones

    People on Food Stamps are OBESE because they are too lazy to make and prepare healthy foods at home. People on Food stamps can eat bananas, apples, tuna fish, sphaghetti, marooni/cheese, Peanut butter/jelly, whole chickens, and many healthy foods at home. Instead, Lazy deadbeats on Food Stamps prefer to buy fast food at the expense of the Hard Working Taxpayers, and the Naiive Democrats.

    December 21, 2010 at 8:23 pm |
  10. KrissyStar

    the little fat girl doesnt look like she has missed too many meals

    December 21, 2010 at 8:17 pm |
    • Samantha Jones

      Maybe Food Stamps should be Reduced so that people on Food Stamps will be healthier. Reduce Food Stamps and we save money and people will be healthier. A Win/Win for all.

      December 21, 2010 at 8:30 pm |
  11. Samantha Jones

    MinnesotaMom My sympathy to you and your children. Maybe you will grow a Skill and Independence and quit being a moocher. Maybe you can instill some self reliance in your children. Maybe you shouldn't have had children.

    December 21, 2010 at 8:11 pm |
    • MinnesotaMom

      @samantha for your information I am a teacher in the public school system so I have a skill, I was married to my kids father for 13 years before he decided he no longer wanted a family. He walked and disappeared leaving me with the house and the kids. So again you jump right to conclusions that I was uneducated when that is not the least bit true. I have a masters degree in elementary education and a BA in communications. I only prepare healthy foods for my kids and Im not sure where you are from but in this state you cant use food stamps for fast or prepared foods. I am a good mother that has done the best I can do with what I have. We dont have the extras no cell, no cable, and we borrow the neighbors internet. We shop only at thrift stores. I used to be like you looking down on people but learned the fall from where you are is hard and fast. I do not believe that people should live on the system as I plan to get off as soon as they can track down my deadbeat ex. Yes people abuse the system everyday but that is not the case for everyone. I collect no other benifits from the state other then the food stamps. I as a kind hearted person value your opinion but just wish that you could see that not every situation is the same.

      December 21, 2010 at 8:48 pm |
  12. MinnesotaMom

    @Samantha...I am by NO means obese not that it is your business but I am 5 foot 10 and weigh 130 lbs and my girls are all petite kids. I do not buy junk food and my girls eat fruit and veggies as snacks.Its narrow-minded people like you that produce mean and bullying kids. I am in noway a lazy deadbeat I work hard everyday just as I am sure you do so all I ask is you dont judge people until you actually take the time out of your self obsorbed life to look past the sterotypes and just maybe you will grow a heart.

    December 21, 2010 at 8:01 pm |
  13. Samantha Jones

    I have not seen a Single Person on Food Stamps who is NOT OBESE. CUT Food Stamps and people will be healthier and NOT OBESE. The Government Steals from the Hard Working Taxpayer to Make the Lazy, Deadbeat OBESE with Food Stamps. Then the Government Steals from us again to pay for Obamacare Welfare Medications to reduce blood pressure and heart disease.

    December 21, 2010 at 7:39 pm |
  14. Samantha Jones

    CUT FOOD STAMPS now and people will be less obese. Food Stamps should only be available to those that are NOT OBESE. The Hard working taxpayers are tired of the Lazy Welfare/Food Stamp deadbeats from STEALING from the Hard Working. Get off your couch and get a JOB.

    December 21, 2010 at 7:36 pm |
    • kell

      “The reason healthier diets are beyond the reach of many people is that such diets cost more. On a per calorie basis, diets composed of whole grains, fish, and fresh vegetables and fruit are far more expensive than refined grains, added sugars and added fats. It’s not a question of being sensible or silly when it comes to food choices, it’s about being limited to those foods that you can afford.”
      Energy-dense foods not only provide more calories per unit weight, but can provide more empty calories per unit cost. These foods include French fries, soft drinks, candy, cookies, deep-fried meats and other fatty, sugary and salty items. The review shows that attempting to reduce food spending tends to drive families toward more refined grains, added sugars and added fats. Previous studies have shown that energy-dense foods may fail to trigger physiological satiety mechanisms – the internal signals that enough food has been consumed. These failed signals lead to overeating and overweight. Paradoxically, trying to save money on food may be a factor in the current obesity epidemic.
      (((Samantha you are sad little person with a boring evening ahead of you)))

      December 21, 2010 at 9:11 pm |
  15. been there done that

    heres an idea for starving kids!

    take all them dead beat parents who aint sending support
    take all those criminals serving time....

    and lets make em work on farms,or in food manufacturing warehouses for free , to make up for all the assistance the state must give their kids or the families they hurt....

    and lets give those checks they would be making to the kids who can't eat cause their moms lost their jobs and their dads skipped town(or vice versa)

    and if the guy(or gal) had a dozen kids and works making tuna or farming corn till they drop so be it!

    wonder if this would even be a problem if it weren't for dead beat parents and thugs!

    December 21, 2010 at 7:06 pm |
  16. been there done that

    why don't the government bring back work programs of some sort like my in laws told me about from the great depression.

    people who don't have jobs donate their time per their skill (teacher,carpenter whatever) and all that food that rots on the farms or all that unused land that farmers get paid to grow nothing in becomes a huge comunity garden, the food of course being shared with the volunteers and their families!

    Also why don't the accounts of jp morgan and some of the other big names that took tax payer money but did nothing to help get frozen and all the money they got be given back to the american people in the form of stimulus checks!

    I mean some high paid execs might have to forgo a spa day but hey..... whats fair is fair right? and while we are at it, lets make em pay it back with fines for lying and interest!

    December 21, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  17. seriously

    I gave food and goods to an American charity, and my husband will send a small check (what we can afford) to a charity we know gives to those who need it most and require drug screening for citizens only in order to benefit from it....

    I give supplies to my kids teachers for those kids that don't have pencils(and not necessarily cause they can't afford them,sometimes just cause their parents won't buy them )

    But beyond that I put my family first, besides what we could afford to give... and I won't give any appoligies for it...

    we lost it all, and we came back better and wiser from it.....

    But I can't tell you how many folks I see lining up for the free this or that in town with a designer purse in one well manicured hand and a ciggerette in the other! and yeah i'm going there!!!

    I know not all those in poverty are like this, but I know quite a few that are! They do it cause they know the system wont let their kids starve, and they play it up to the nines while other folks who really need it can't get it...
    and dont even get me started on the those women with anchor babies with daddies that work under the table off the record and sneak into the housing project unknown to the government, and making the kids lie and say daddy don't live with them ! Don't get me started on the poor middle class who have always bashed the true poor and now have a taste of it themselves and are boo hooing all over themselves about it......

    people have been poor for ever, the middle class always bashed em,and now them are them! hahahahah get a crock pot and frigging deal!

    December 21, 2010 at 6:27 pm |
  18. bill

    What can you do?

    December 21, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
  19. MinnesotaMom

    I am a single mom of 3 all my childern have the same daddy whom I was married to for 13 years until he decided this was not the life he wanted anymore. I work hard and hold down a full-time job but still at the end of the day I am unable to put food on my table after paying the mortgage, electric and oil bills.I in noway wanted this life for me nor my kids so for all you people who believe all us "freeloaders" are looking for a handout that is not always the case its the last think I wanted to do. I had a good life before it came crashing down and what people need to remember is that most people are one major crisis away from needing help. Before you ask, No I do not have cable, a house phone, a cell phone or my own internet. I do not smoke, drink or do drugs. My childern are well taken care properly raised and always clean. People need to stop the sterotyping and realize that not all people on foodstamps are lazy, shiftless people. I tried to and am currently still trying to gain help from the kids father and when I do so I will beable to come off of the program. So for all you heartless people just remember your perfect world might not always be so perfect so stop looking down on others.

    December 21, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
  20. I.just.pigged.out.big.time

    Hunger should be illegal. Anyone who is found to be hungry should be arrested and executed.

    December 21, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  21. seriously

    for those who want to help: donate food,money and goods for a tax write off. it helps someone else as well as yourself.

    for those who need help...stop smoking,stop drinking,stop having unprotected sex, cut off cable and the internet.
    buy a ten dollar crock pot and learn to use it....beans and rice are dirt cheap, and sunflower market or your local grocery store always has dried and fresh goods on sale...just buy whats on sale. Crock pots are easy, you throw some veggies, water and beans or cheap meat in a pot with salt and pepper on low for 12 hours and slow cook.
    My family eats like this for $2 a night! learn to embrace hot cereal and powdered milk!

    when we were broke we ate oats in the morning, pbJ in the noon and crock pot soup at supper time all for the clear cost of $5 a day for a family of 4! and we cut off all the non neccessities until times got better. we bought our cloths at good will and pinched our pennies till they screamed...and we sure the heck did not have more kids we couldn't afford to feed. no one smoked or drank(still don't) and the public libriariy or walking was our entertainingment. Makeup and fake nails were unaffordable, but hey as long as your clean, and your hairs pulled back in a bun it all works out.

    Some of these folks smoke $400 worth of cigs, drink,have cable, get fake nails , pay for more house than they can afford....

    down size,walk more,do without,make soup and you'll be ok....I totally promise!

    December 21, 2010 at 5:14 pm |
  22. been there done that

    how about this,
    Lets stop fighting other countries wars, stop giving free food,housing and education and wellfare to illegal immigrants and cut the fat in washinton and sit down and take care of our folks. But do let us drug test people getting welfare and other benefits, do let us ban ciggerettees from their daily spending. I've known smokers who are on welfare.....and if they quite smoking ($400-$500 a month) that money could easily go to food. not to be harsh, but its true.....lots of folks on welfare who are illegal and or smoking or doing dope.

    December 21, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  23. Mark

    I can understand this, I have no kids but I will say it is tight. I Have alwasy worked since I was 16 years old, now at 22 I am unemployed, Have three pepole living in the house with me and its hard. State of Illinois gives me $74 dollars a week in unemployment and $137 a month in foodstamps. It dosent even cover my rent let alone electricity. Food, is gone in a week, however I have 2 have a letter from the link office to go to the local food pantry. I go in to the office and I get well you just got your benifts so I cant give it to you. O ok ma'am no problem me and my family will just go starve in our home with no heat. Welcome to the United States, The rich get Richer the poor need to crawl in a corner and die, o but we need to send money to hati wouldnt want pepole thinking we dont care!!

    December 21, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • seriously

      I do agree we should give to our own before we can take care of another country. we also should stop giving to illegals as well. any one in this country getting help should be a citizen, and other countries problems should be put on hold till we can take care of our own. we can't feed our neighbors(other countries) until we can feed ourselves(usa) kinda mean of me to say but I think a lot of you might agree. I feel for Haiti, but until we eliminate hunger and joblessness here, I think its irresponsible to give our tax money over there. If the rich wanna donate over there and thumb their nose at their fellow citizens so be it, but our tax money should stay RIGHT HERE....and ,all those mortgage companies and banks that got a bail out should pay back the tax coffers they took from.....and it should go back into the hands of the Americans and back on our tables!

      December 21, 2010 at 5:22 pm |
  24. Stephanie

    As a middle school teacher I see this all the time. There are so many more students who need this aide than who are allowed to apply for it. Many parents are too ashamed or proud to apply for this because they work so hard to try and provide for their children. I and many of my colleagues regularly give away our lunches to kids who need it. Trust me, I know that I can afford to skip a meal here and there. We keep a desk drawer stocked with simple foods like raisins, cereal bars, crackers, juiceboxes, etc. that we pay for ourselves. We do this not because we want the credit, slap on the back, or even "good job" but because we simply can't imagine not doing it. If I can make a difference I do. I'm not a hero, not better than anyone else, and not expecting others to do the same. I'm not complaining–I can fortunately feed my family and give up a few other things to make sure the kids who need it definitely have something when they are hungry. My kids do not take advantage of this–most will never ask. Instead I casually ask if anyone wants an apple or other snack every once in a while. I know that no matter what I offer, even if it's a granola bar, the kids who need it most will volunteer. I know that if they are feeling sick or hungry they can trust that we will be able to help them without making them feel ashamed. I believe that as a human, this is my job–to help take care of those who can't help themselves. I know that one day I may need this same help–and that I hope others may support me if that time comes.

    December 21, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
    • William De muth

      Finally, a post that seems based in a sense of truth.

      Honor the true teacher for they aspire to a better tomorrow.

      Stay true to your beliefs!

      December 21, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
    • Snowbunny

      You are a wonderful person. :)

      December 21, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
  25. jeremiah jackson

    All this bashing and no real solutions. Americans should take care of Americans first and stop sending our money to foreign countries. I blame the federal government and all the politicians for the mess we are in, not the kids. If you really want to point fingers start with the top and go down.

    December 21, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
1 2 3 4 5
Next entry »
« Previous entry
| Part of

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,975 other followers