How serious is it when kids go hungry?

SARASOTA — The All Faiths Food Bank 2017 Child Hunger Summit, held Tuesday morning in Sarasota, brought together hundreds of community leaders and child health experts for a discussion on just how serious it is when kids go hungry.

While there are plenty of other priorities that the group could tackle, Sandra Frank, the CEO of All Faiths Food Bank, said her organization realized a few years ago that the best way to empower future adults was to make sure children today aren’t going to bed hungry.

John T. Cook, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, gave the keynote address, and he said that childhood hunger has long-lasting consequences well into adulthood.

Not only does not having enough to eat make a child uncomfortable in the moment, persistent hunger can shrink a child’s brain, said Cook.

“It’s a relatively new finding and understanding,” Cook said. “I think the most astonishing part is that it is an actual physical change.”

Cook said while it may seem obvious that persistent childhood hunger would lead to health difficulties, the medical world has lacked conclusive proof because researchers can’t create controlled experiments where a child is deprived of food and then tested for specific outcomes.

But researchers have discovered that growth in the brain’s nerve cells will be stunted without a proper diet. The architecture of the brain is established during a child’s first three years, as the 100 billion nerve cells in the brain make connections and establish neural pathways, Cook said.

“Every part of this cell and its functioning depends on proper and adequate nutrition,” Cook said, while displaying a diagram of a nerve cell. “If that nutrition is not available and not forthcoming then the cells do not develop optimally.”

Childhood hunger also causes what Cook described as “toxic stress,” which animal testing has shown can lead to the loss of dendrites, the brain’s connectors.

That’s why a child who went to bed hungry as a toddler is more inclined to have inappropriate outbursts at school, even if they are fully nourished once they reach school age.

“Sometimes a child will just explode, sometimes they will withdraw, but generally it will be an inappropriate response to some relatively normal stimulus,” Cook said

Causes, cost and impact

The event focused on the causes, cost and impact of childhood hunger in a state that ranks 40th out of 50 when it comes to overall child well-being, according to the 2017 Kids Count Databook. The report took into account the strength of the economy, education, healthcare and family and community.

University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee associate professor Norin Dollard presented the findings from the 2017 databook for Florida’s 67 counties.

The good news? Sarasota County finished number one and is arguably the best place in Florida to raise a kid, and Manatee finished 20th. The bad news? DeSoto County finished dead last, 67 out of 67.

In DeSoto 41 percent of the children live in poverty, 95 percent of eighth graders are not math proficient, and 46 percent of children live in single-family homes.

But even with Sarasota County’s top ranking, there is plenty of work to be done, said Douglas Griesenauer, senior manager of data and outcomes at United Way Suncoast. Griesenauer pointed out that one of three people in Sarasota live either below the poverty line or hovers on the edge.

“One in three isn’t the highest of benchmarks to go for,” Griesenauer said. “Comparing data from 2015, we know …we still have a lot of work to go, especially for younger adults, single parent households and blacks and Hispanics.”

Dollard said a coalition-based approach was the most likely to succeed, both when it comes to supporting local agencies and lobbying lawmakers for change.

“It can’t just be one sector,” Dollard said. “It needs to be collective action.”

Educational experience

Schools especially see the results of early hunger.

“An incredible amount of brain development is happening in the first three months of life,” Cook said. “If a child is affected by food insecurity, it makes it really hard for them to enter school and make progress.”

Diana Dill, vice president of development for Meals on Wheels PLUS in Manatee, said to consider the younger siblings of students receiving free and reduced lunch in school.

“If we know we have so many of our kindergarten children receiving breakfast and lunch at school because the need is so great, what about the children that are at home?” Dill said.

Dill encouraged community members to get involved with food banks to help ensure families with young children have enough food each night.

“The need has increased dramatically…the idea that it’s just people that are homeless that are hungry is just not true anymore,” Dill said. “The reality is the majority of the people we serve are working, but they just have limited income for food.”

And Cook urged those in attendance to see childhood hunger as an imposing yet solvable problem.

“Children thrive when we respond to their realities,” Cook said.