I’ve been doing some research about the lives of today’s children in my efforts to learn more about my audience, and I’ve come across some pretty startling statistics. For example:
- 1 in 6 people in America face hunger. That means more than 1 in 5 children is at risk for being hungry during a regular school day. Among African American and Latino American children, the risk is 1 in 3.
- For every 100 school lunch programs, there are only 87 breakfast sites and 36 summer food programs.
- Nearly half of the 1 in 7 people enrolled in SNAP programs are children.
- Over 20 million children receive free or reduced-price lunches each day at school. Less than half of these kids get breakfast, and even less than that have access to a meal program in the summer.
- 40 percent of food is thrown out in the United States each year. That’s about $165 billion, and that amount could feed 25 million people.
Yep, you read that right…$165 billion…enough to feed 25 million hungry people; and a grotesquely large number of those are children. Pretty overwhelming stuff, considering we’re at the end of the season of thankfulness and just opening the door on the season of giving.
So what do these numbers have to do with writing for kids? Well, think about that for a minute. One in 5 children ARE hungry during the regular school day. That means when little Johnny or Susie picks up a book during library time, most days all he or she can think about is, “When’s lunch?” And I don’t know about you, but when I’m hungry, reading, thinking or any kind of concentrating is almost impossible. Now imagine if that same child picks up a book about making pancakes, or having a meal with family, or sitting down to a table laden with holiday goodness? I mean, don’t we all get a little bit hungry, even when we’re not if food flashes in front of our eyes?
Now let’s talk buying books. If more than 20 million children across America receive free or reduced-priced lunches, how many of them have ever or will ever hold a book in their hands that they’ve purchased with their very own money? And how does that figure into school book fairs where some families must choose between paying the rent or buying groceries, much less finding some extra cash so a child can be like his or her classmates and visit the book fair? Part of developing a life-long love of reading is the feeling that comes when you crack open a book of your very own. The smell. The sound of pages turning. The brightness of brand new pictures and paper that isn’t stained or torn. All of this creates memories that draw adults back to books. I know ebooks have their place, but for book lovers, there’s just nothing quite like it. If this love of books never develops because books aren’t accessible or kids are too hungry to read them, how is this impacting society as a whole?
When I was a teacher I wrote a different inspiring quote on the chalkboard each day (you know, that long green thing that used to hang in the front of the classroom:). One of my favorites was, “Readers are leaders.” But even the child with the absolute most potential for greatness in the world can’t lead when she’s hungry, because all she thinks about is, well, being hungry.
It would be great if the answer were as simple as putting hungry children in our stories so they can see themselves in what they read. Or don’t put hungry children in our stories so they won’t feel marginalized. Or don’t put food in our stories so we don’t create more hunger. Or put more food in our stories, or, or, or… you see the problem here, right? I guess, as with many other types of social injustice, writing in the most thoughtful way possible with the goal of shining some light on the problem without singling out children and making their lives more difficult is the best approach. Pretty tall order, but you’re a writer for children, remember? In your heart, you’ve taken a sacred oath to do just that. And if you haven’t you should, or find something else to do with your time.
The other thing you can do is put legs on your prayers for hungry children by seeking out ways to help. I read a really great suggestion on Facebook the other day about going to your local school and paying off outstanding lunch charges for children in need. You may not know this, but hungry kids fall through the cracks all the time, and not all families who need free and reduced-priced lunches get them for a variety of reasons. When these kids’ lunch charges exceed a certain amount, they can no longer get lunch and are forced to eat a dry cheese sandwich or a bowl of Cheerios. Yep. It’s the truth.
Another great idea is to help your local school start a sharing table! Sharing tables are no-judgment zones in school cafeterias. They help reduce food waste by encouraging children to place the food they don’t like or don’t want to eat on the table and choose something they do like instead. At the end of the day, any extra food is donated to charity to help feed the hungry in the community. It’s a win-win because kids who didn’t get quite enough can feel free to pick something off the sharing table without feeling embarrassed, and food that otherwise would have gone in the trash gets eaten. Some schools even pack up the leftovers and send them home with needy kids so their families can have just a little more that night. You can read more about Sharing Tables here:
Writers are doers. We “do” every day without having to punch a time clock. As long as we meet our deadlines, it’s all good. Put that writer “do” into finding ways to help end childhood hunger.
Then what will we have? More kids with satisfied tummies and books in their hands (the ones with your name on them). More readers. More leaders who remember what it’s like to be “that kid” and who work to change their world.
Sensibility- Writing is a reflection of life, and sometimes life isn’t pretty. Reflect it, as often as possible, with grace and kindness.
Sense- Find out what your community does to fight childhood hunger and get involved.