The many fronts of the local fight against child hunger
In the second of a two-part series on food insecurity among children in our area, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi speaks with a pediatrician, a food bank director, and a WIC benefits coordinator.
In the first part of this report, we stopped in at the Bridge to Hope Food Pantry in Buena Vista. They are one of 207 food pantries and 187 nutrition program sites served by the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, based in Verona.
MICHAEL MCKEE: The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank provides food to about 34,000 … children each month.
Michael McKee is the organization's CEO.
He said they rely on research from the national organization Feeding America to get a sense of how many people in the region struggle with hunger. Their most recent data, from 2019, showed that in the food bank's service area as a whole – 25 counties and eight cities – 8% of children faced food insecurity. That varies widely based on locality, though, from a high of 20% in Buena Vista to a low of less than 2% in Loudoun County.
But those data are three years old, and McKee is concerned that the numbers may now be higher.
MCKEE: There aren't the same resources available through the federal government. The enhancement of SNAP, for example, the unemployment supplements, and so on. And combined with the effects of inflation, that are really hitting families who are low income very hard, we are expecting that the actual numbers of children facing food insecurity are higher than the current estimates would suggest.
He wants the federal government to step up its efforts to ensure that the nation's children are well fed.
MCKEE: The federal government has a Child Nutrition Act that it reauthorizes or is supposed to reauthorize every five years, but it was last reauthorized in 2010 … so no changes have been made to child nutrition programs like free and reduced lunch in those 12 years, except during the pandemic, when waivers were created to deal with the crisis.
One of the programs included within the Child Nutrition Act is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children – better known as WIC. It's administered at the local level by health department officials, such as Amy Falk with the Central Shenandoah Health District.
AMY FALK: [sound of baby cooing and laughing] WIC is a supplemental nutrition education program that serves women who are pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding, their infants, and their children up to age five.
Her own little one provided a perfect soundtrack for our interview topic.
FALK: [baby cries] She skipped nap time … she's trying to get on her brother's little Batman bike … We, I mean obviously like all the other WIC programs in the state of Virginia, did see an increase when the pandemic first hit, of people who were out of work who might not have otherwise qualified for WIC benefits, so we are glad to be able to help them.
Her office also hosts a farmer's market at the Staunton health department to make it more convenient for their clients to purchase fresh, locally grown produce. And her staff takes WIC vouchers over to the Waynesboro farmer's market for clients in that area to use.
FALK: So, I mean, if you're a Mom with, say two kids and you're pregnant, that's $90 for fresh produce that you can get from our farmer's market in addition to the extra benefits you're already getting on WIC.
She said they're currently working to expand that program to their Lexington office.
A few miles up the road from the Lexington health department, at the Rockbridge Area Health Center, pediatrician Dr. Percita Ellis is always looking out for signs of inadequate nutrition among her patients.
PERCITA ELLIS: One of the ways you can tell is if they're very sluggish, not doing well in school … it really is hard to tell, so one of the things that we do is what's known as a hunger screening. And with that, there are two questions that we ask. One, are there times when you feel like you may run out of the funds for food before you actually get new funds? … Have there been times when you actually did run out of funds for food?
They have a social worker at the clinic who can set up parents with WIC, SNAP, and other resources. But sometimes, what a parent really needs is just a few minutes of internet access.
ELLIS: One particular patient, I could tell that something was wrong. She always went to spend the night with a friend of hers on the weekend, and it turned out that there was some food insecurity … While I was talking to the patient, I had the mother get on the internet, and by the time we were done, she had signed up for WIC, EBT, and had leads for housing. So I was thrilled about that.
She said some of the effects of inadequate nutrition on kids are getting sick more often, struggling to recover from illnesses, poor educational outcomes, and mental health issues.
ELLIS: If there's any patient parent who is unsure, or having difficulty with food insecurity, please talk to your pediatrician. Because we as pediatricians do have a list of resources that can help you, so that not only your child is able to grow and develop, but you yourself are able to start feeling better and being able to help others – your child, as well as in the community.
She said the first step for pediatricians is to build relationships with their clients to break down the stigma of asking for a bit of help. For WMRA News, I'm Randi B. Hagi.