Child Poverty & Hunger During The Holidays

Many children who live in low income families depend on free or subsidized school meals, without which they would literally go hungry.  But what happens when the winter holidays arrive?

According to the latest statistics released by the USDA, there are 3.9 million households in America in which both adults and children are food insecure—which means they have limited or inconsistent access to food which is both nutritious and safe.  Hunger during the holidays is not just a soft issue of feeling that every family, no matter how poor, should be able to gather together for a decent holiday meal.  People may suffer emotionally from not being able to feast at the holidays, but those who are not living on the razor’s edge of poverty may not realize how much financial pressure is put upon these vulnerable families when their children aren’t receiving free lunches from school over their break.  It is alarming just how many children depend on these free lunches as a primary source of nutrition and sustenance.

Although the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) offered by the USDA runs a program which provides a portion of low-income children with meals over their summer vacation, there is no national program that covers the winter holiday break.  This time of year puts additional stress on low-income families—who not only have to figure out ways to have their children cared for while they are at work, but also how to provide food for their children during this time.

Dozens of organizations across the country have rallied to establish programs that connect donors’ charity to those in need during the merriest time of year.

Island Harvest

Island Harvest, the largest hunger relief organization on Long Island, has been able to tackle the issue of hunger by delivering donors’ contributions to 570 food pantries, soup kitchens and other hunger relief non-profit organizations.  With the help of volunteers and donations, the organization has been able to successfully put 95 cents out of every dollar donated into one of their programs.

To address the hunger faced by low-income children over the winter holiday, Island Harvest has sought to extend their Weekend Backpack Program, which provides children with two lunches, breakfasts, and snacks of nutritious, shelf stable food, by doubling children’s packs during the holiday.   The types of foods offered in a pack can easily be made by the children themselves and does not require a microwave, as some families lack access to one.  In addition to the meals provided, the pack also contains multilingual flyers that list community resources, health, nutrition and fitness guides, as well as kid-friendly educational material.

Although the limited resources of the program only allow Island Harvest to extend the food pack to cover an extra weekend’s worth of food, these are still four additional meals a child might not have received otherwise.

No Kid Hungry campaign

The No Kid Hungry campaign is led by Share Our Strength, a non-profit organization that seeks to bolster food security for children in America.  The campaign operates under the awareness that hunger contributes to cyclical poverty.  A child who is hungry is more likely to develop frequent illnesses, behavioral problems, and even learning disabilities—all of which affects her performance in school.  Low performance means that she is less likely to graduate from high school which greatly reduces her access to a well-paying job, making it financially difficult to provide food and other necessities for her own children.

As part of the campaign, a program called Cooking Matters has been established to teach low-income families shopping strategies that allow them to cook nutritious, homemade meals for their family within the confines of their budget.   Learning how to cook and shop are two skills which are imperative when it comes to addressing childhood hunger and health issues—skills that will be passed down from parent to child.  And when it comes to school breaks, these skills allow parents a little bit of relief in knowing how to prepare for the additional food demand during these times.

Presents of Peace

The Presents of Peace program—run by YWCA Metro Vancouver in British Columbia—connects donors with low-income, single parent families to whom they donate and deliver a holiday hamper of gifts and food.

Presents of Peace is a very personal approach and a moving experience for all involved. Sponsors are matched with a family and provided with their wish list. Sponsors then shop for gifts and deliver the hamper to the family’s home. The hamper includes a gift card for the family to purchase food for their own holiday meal, which we find is the most culturally sensitive approach for the diverse population in Metro Vancouver.

—Julie Cheng of YWCA Metro Vancouver.

Holiday hampers usually cost around $300 for a single mother with one child and the program suggests an extra $125 be added for each additional child.  In an interview with Vanessa Wellington, YWCA Metro Vancouver’s donor relations manager, she explained that mothers tend to ask for winter garments for their children, household necessities, diapers, etc., while children usually put down whatever toys are popular at the time.  No item on the wish list can exceed $75 and the program does not allow participants to give gift cards, expensive name brands, animals, or alcohol.  Families can, however, ask for used items such as bikes, computers, laptops, etc.

Because we serve so many families from different cultures and backgrounds we don’t ask donors to provide a turkey. We have also found that many of the families have no way to cook a turkey; for example, they don’t have an oven that works or any place to store the turkey.

—Vanessa Wellington

Vanessa has received an influx of positive reactions from sponsor families who have delivered their holiday hampers to their matched family.  Some mention that it is hard to witness the conditions in which their sponsored family lives but that it is a truly humbling and heartening experience to be met with such happiness and thanks when they deliver their gifts.  Many of the donor families that corresponded with Vanessa said that they planned on making the program a family tradition.

Hunger: a year-round problem

Although many choose the holiday season as a time of year for charity, hunger is a year round problem.  Indeed, although the FNS offers a Summer Food Service Program, due to limited resources this program can only offer hunger relief to just a portion of low-income children over their school break. To attain more sustainable solutions to end this epidemic, many non-profits, soup kitchens, and food banks have started looking towards creating their own food gardens.

Read more on how urban farms feed those in need

It is a common practice for most people to donate food during the holiday period. This is commendable. We, however, do not participate in food drives as such. Instead we try to build very local food security in the form of backyard gardens and community gardens where we help people grow their own food year round.

—Sanjay Kharod of New Orleans Farm & Food Network (NOFFN)

These urban food gardens not only provide bountiful harvests of fresh, clean produce but also act as educational venues in which both children and adults can be empowered with the skills needed to grow and cook their own food.

Sustainable Holidays