Deborah Feyerick is a CNN correspondent. See part one of this series Witnesses to Hunger: A portrait of food insecurity in America and read producer Sheila Steffen's $30 grocery challenge
Six-year-old Juvens Lewis jumps on the scale, his tiny body lost in a flowing hospital gown. He weighs in at 37.2 pounds, the size of an average 4-year-old. Giggling, he heads back to his examining room as sounds of children filter into the busy hallway. All are getting check-ups at Boston Medical Center’s Grow Clinic, which treats underweight and malnourished kids.
“People think about acute malnutrition and they may look at Somalia. What we see is chronic malnutrition, stunted growth, kids that are the size of a 1-year-old when they’re 2 years old,” says Dr. Megan Sandel who treats Juvens adding, “They’re not going to be able to make up for that for the rest of their lives.”
“I’m shaking my head like crazy,” she says wondering, “How am I going to buy food for my kid?”
Emergency rooms in Boston are seeing a spike in underweight children 5 and younger. In cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Little Rock, Arkansas, numbers of malnourished kids have doubled in the last two years, doctors say, largely because of the recession.
“Some kids it’s obvious. You can count their ribs. Their arms and legs look skinny. Their heads look too big,” says Dr. Deborah Frank, who runs the Grow Clinic and who treats dozens of children a week.
Frank moves rapidly from room to room, picking up charts, weighing, measuring and closely examining each small patient. She is a woman on a mission to stem the effects of hunger and its damaging effect on brain development during the crucial growth years of zero to five.
“The scary thing,” Frank notes, is that “even when you re-feed the kids and get them going again and physically growing, you find deficits in their learning and behavior all the way into high school.”
Doctors find children who don’t get proper food in the early years are more vulnerable to illness. They get sick more often and stay sick longer with chronic health conditions. They may test lower in math and reading and as a result fall behind in school. They also experience emotional problems like anxiety and depression.
“You’ll often see a mom trying to feed a whole family of kids with a package of French fries and a soda which is nutritionally awful but it makes the kids feel full - the fat and the bubbles,” says Frank who sees parents who skip meals and give their share of food to their children.
Nearly 40 million people received food stamps in the summer of 2010 - and the number is growing. Some in Congress are now talking about cutting or ending nutrition programs like SNAP, commonly known as food stamps, and WIC.
Frank believes the consequences could be devastating, “It’s sort of like me saying we’re about to have a plague epidemic, so the government is cutting back on immunizations and antibiotics to save money just as the plague is hitting.”
Boston Medical Center recently opened its own pantry where doctors write food prescriptions. Says Dr. Sandel, “When we first set up the program we through we were going to serve 500 families a month and last month we served 7,500. So you can imagine we are handing out over 70,000 bags of food every single month.” It's a trend at food pantries nationwide.
See part one of this series Witnesses to Hunger: A portrait of food insecurity in America and read producer Sheila Steffen's $30 grocery challenge
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