Sitting in the shade outside his apartment complex, 9-year-old Zaccai munches on his bologna and cheese sandwich while kidding around with the other kids eating their lunches on a hot summer day.
“Usually I eat whatever I can find in my fridge. This is nice,” he said before jumping up to help pass out flyers promoting Reynoldsburg City Schools’ summer meal program, which provides free meals to children in low-income areas.
As cafeteria workers pass out meals to about a dozen children, 14-year-old Marquise digs into his salad.
“I eat salad whenever I can. I like to stay in shape,” he said while watching Connie Fatseas, food-service director in Reynoldsburg schools, who is dressed in a clown costume to help draw attention to the district’s new mobile feeding unit. The van travels to four sites that had the highest number of students who received free or reduced lunches during the school year. Free breakfast and lunch also is available for children ages 1 to 18 during the work week at the high school.
“I don’t think some of these kids get anything to eat during the summer, especially in this economy with so many parents struggling. The kids fall through the cracks in the summer,” said Courtney Elzey, a leasing agent at Eastgreen on the Commons where several children had been waiting 30 minutes before the van made its third stop.
Hunger is a reality in Ohio where almost 70,000 children received free meals last year through the state’s Summer Nutrition Program, which is offered at more than 1,500 sites statewide. That’s up 13 percent from 2008, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a national anti-hunger advocacy group. The center said in a January report that 20 percent of all Ohio households did not have enough money to buy food over a 12-month time period. The number rose to 27 percent for families with children.
A global issue
“The world’s biggest challenge is to feed future generations but even more importantly to feed the kids who don’t get enough to eat,” said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a 2001 World Food Laureate, pointing out that about 5 million children died of hunger and nutrition-related illnesses last year, many in Asia and Africa.
“It’s not our responsibility to solve their problems but it is our responsibility to help them,” he said on Town Hall Ohio, Ohio Farm Bureau’s weekly radio program.
About 1 billion of 6.8 billion people worldwide were undernourished in 2009, or 100 million more than in 2008, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The organization says that agricultural production needs to increase to feed a growing world population, which is expected to be 9.1 billion by 2050.
“Where will that extra food come from? We have limited choices. We need to use fewer resources in a sustainable fashion,” said Terry Fleck, executive director of the Center for Food Integrity. The United Nations estimates farming in 2050 will occupy only about 1 percent more land than was used in 2008. Fleck said about 70 percent of the additional food needed by 2050 will have to come from innovation and new technology such as advances in genetics, nutrition, livestock management and pest and disease control.
“The heart and soul of America is that we are a curious and innovative people, and we need to use technology responsibly and not shelve it,” he said. “We in the United States have a very affordable, safe and abundant food supply and often we don’t think of the global issues of hunger. We have a populace that is very interested in how our food is raised but what is missing is balance. The reality is that we have hungry people and making changes in our food policy impacts people all over the world.”
Farmers have been working hard at producing food in the most efficient and sustainable way possible, Pinstrup-Andersen said. From 1987 to 2007, farmers grew 40 percent more corn, 30 percent more soybeans and 19 percent more wheat on the same amount of land. Today each U.S. farmer produces food and fiber for 155 people in the United States, according to the American Farm Bureau. In 1940, each farmer fed 19 people.
“We’ve got to produce food where it’s most efficiently produced and where we do the least damage to the climate,” Pinstrup-Andersen said. “We have to worry about efficient use of the natural resources we have. Otherwise we will tear them apart and not have enough food 50 years from now.”
Americans spend only about 9 percent or 10 percent of their disposable income on food, compared with 50 percent in India and about 25 percent in Japan, Fleck said. The worldwide economic downturn that started two years ago has caused food prices to inch up, putting more stress on food banks and families that were already struggling to make ends meet.
Just a slight increase in the cost of lunch during the school year can make a huge difference for some families, Fatseas said.
“As soon as you raise the lunch prices 10 cents or 25 cents, people drop off the rolls,” she said. “In order to keep the meal cost down, you need to shop carefully.”
About 40 percent of Reynoldsburg school students receive free or reduced meals during the school year, Fatseas said. In Ohio, the federal school lunch and breakfast programs served 889,146 children daily during the 2008-2009 school year, according to the Food Research and Action Center. Only a fraction of the students who received free meals during the school year get meals in the summer.
“There’s absolutely some kids who would not get food if it weren’t for the summer program,” Fatseas said as she passed out pencils to kids eating their free lunch at Reynoldsburg High School. “It’s a shame for any child to not be able to eat.”
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.
Attention teachers and parents: See how this story connects to Ohio’s academic content standards.
Almost ¾ of the spending in the national Farm Bill is used for nutrition and hunger programs. The remaining money is used for efforts such as environmental conservation and providing a safety net for America’s food production system. Listen to conversations about food and other issues facing Ohio at www.TownHallOhio.org.