SOUTH DAKOTA — Although not having enough food is harmful in any population of people, it can be especially devastating among children due to their increased vulnerability and the potential for long-term consequences.
Good nutrition, particularly in the first three years of life, is paramount in establishing a good foundation that has major implications for a child’s future physical and mental health, academic achievement, and productivity. Unfortunately, food insecurity is an obstacle that threatens that crucial foundation and affects children and families within the Black Hills more than one might imagine.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 2014, 15.3 million children younger than 18 in the U.S. live in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food necessary for a healthy lifestyle.
In South Dakota, one in five children is food insecure, according to Feeding South Dakota, a hunger relief organization. Food insecurity has been associated with health problems for children that can hinder their ability to function normally and participate fully in school and other activities.
The organization said that children who experience food insecurity might be at an increased risk for behavioral issues and social difficulties and may experience increases in an array of behavior troubles including fighting, hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, mood swings, and bullying.
South Dakota’s public schools provide free or reduced meals to children at risk of hunger through the national school lunch program, and nearly 40 percent of our state’s school-aged children qualify for free and reduced meals. In the local area, 30.4 percent of the Spearfish School District, 40 percent of the Meade School District, 44.2 percent of the Belle Fourche School District, and 50 percent of the Lead-Deadwood School District qualify for the free and reduced school lunch program. The program combats hunger during the school week, but it does not address the needs of children when school is not in session.
This is where Feeding America and Feeding South Dakota fill an important void through the national BackPack program. More than 5,500 packages of food are distributed weekly to hungry children across the state through the program that provides at-risk children with nutritious, easy-to-prepare foods during weekends and holidays when school is not in session.
Brian Aspen is the school-to-family liaison for the Belle Fourche School District and is currently in his sixth year coordinating the BackPack program for the district.
“The one thing about educating children is that if their basic needs are not met, no matter whether that unmet need is biological or physiological, it is difficult for them to concentrate in the classroom environment,” said Aspen. “Experiencing hunger is definitely an unmet basic need that affects behavior and concentration. If a child’s stomach is growling … that’s what they pay attention to … not the teacher.”
Aspen said that although there may be only one hungry child in a classroom, the behavior that child exhibits can significantly interrupt the entire classroom and inhibit other children’s learning, and in this way affects the entire community, not only the hungry.
The Belle Fourche School District currently receives 40 bags of food to be distributed among its hungry students weekly, and Aspen said that typically serves between 23 and 33 students per week.
“All I can say is that it really helps fill the hunger void. Both the students and the parents are appreciative,” said Aspen.
The Lead-Deadwood School District distributes 50 bags a week; the Meade School District, which includes all Sturgis schools, Piedmont Elementary and Whitewood Elementary, distributes 54 bags a week; and the Spearfish School District distributes 65 bags a week through the program.
Prairie Hills Transit partners with the United Way and Feeding South Dakota to transport and deliver the packages of food to the various schools in the Northern Hills at a reduced rate.
Prairie Hills Transit Executive Director Barbara Cline coordinates the deliveries to the local schools and told the Pioneer that she feels children are an asset for every community and that this is a way their organization can give back to the communities they work within.
“Anything we can possibly do to help local families is something we try to help with,” said Cline. “This program fills a vital role for the needs of children in our communities.”
Other programs that assist to fill the hunger void in our communities are SNAP and WIC.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) helps low-income South Dakotans buy the food they need to stay healthy while they work to regain financial independence. SNAP benefits are not intended to cover all of a person or family’s food costs but will help with purchasing the food needed for a nutritionally adequate diet.
WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) is a special supplemental nutrition program for eligible women, infants, and children, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by the South Dakota Department of Health. WIC’s goal is to promote and maintain the health and wellbeing of nutritionally at-risk women, infants and young children.
Although there are programs available to assist hungry families and children, the facts highlighting the gap between the amount of hunger ailing our communities and amount of resources available to go around is astounding, even in the Northern Hills.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said that, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”