By Donna Brazile, NEA Columnist
A story from almost everyone's childhood involves being told they should finish eating all of their dinner. After all, the argument went, a child living in Somalia, Indonesia or even down in Honduras, is going without food as you sit there and waste yours.
Today in America, parents don't have to point to a faraway, poor country. Almost anywhere, in rural communities and urban areas, they can point across town or down the street or, in many cases, right next door to someone who is going hungry.
Food insecurity means "the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food." That's insufficient food intake, or plainly, hunger. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) details the biological effects of food insecurity: "When individuals are undernourished, they can no longer maintain natural bodily capacities, such as growth, resisting infections and recovering from disease, learning and physical work, and pregnancy and lactation in women."
UNICEF focuses on emergency food, shelter and medical relief to children in poverty-struck nations. The United States is wealthy. Yet, the statistics on hungry, undernourished or malnourished children in our midst are astounding.
In our nation's capital, 28 percent of the children go without enough food. New Mexico has the highest number of hungry children at 29.5 percent. North Dakota does the best out of 50 states: Only 10 percent of its children are underfed. Thirty-seven states have between 20 to 30 percent of their children going without enough food. In Texas, a whopping 27.4 percent of children go hungry daily.
As in the rest of the world, poverty is the cause of hunger in the United States. It doesn't matter if you're working two part-time jobs or one full-time job, wages for most of the country have stagnated.
There's a role for government to play in alleviating hunger and ensuring the most vulnerable in our country have supplemental income to pay for food. Derided by opponents as "handouts," the federal government's SNAP program provides necessary help for families, veterans, the disabled, and the elderly to deal with food insecurity. In 2012, 45 percent of all SNAP participants were under 18, and 20 percent are elderly or have a disability.
The SNAP program has decreased fraud by three-fourths in the past 15 years, ensuring that support goes to those who need it. And SNAP is a no-brainer economically: Every $1 in benefits generates $1.73 in economic activity by infusing money into local economies and freeing up cash for other expenses.
Krista, of Leawood, Kansas, is a teacher (22.5 percent of Kansas children are hungry). She told her story to the anti-hunger organization Feeding America: "I didn't really think much about what childhood hunger looked like until I began working around it every day. ... Hungry kids look like other kids. Except they aren't. They eat like no one is watching, they lick their trays clean, they finish quickly and ask others if 'they are gonna eat that.'
"The noise that you would expect in a busy school cafeteria is absent. These kids are eating. There is no playing or wasting because they know that this may be their best meal of the day."
Krista's experience is by no means unique. In 2013, more than 21.5 million low-income students received reduced-price or free meals in schools through the federal government's National School Lunch Program.
While the logic of not wasting food might escape many 5-year-olds, the worry about wasted food is a real one. Even with 45.3 million people living in poverty in 2012, food waste topped 35 million tons. Further, food currently comprises 20 percent of what we put into landfills.
California Orange County health officer Dr. Eric Handler saw an opportunity to take the food that large establishments were throwing out and get it to hungry families.
Handler, a pediatrician, joined with Mark Lowry, head of the Orange County Food Bank, to found the Waste-Not Orange Coalition. The coalition's goal is to "reduce hunger and solid waste by facilitating the donation of wholesome surplus food."
Between just July and October of this year, the coalition partnered with restaurants, food vendors, businesses, hospitals and others to recover 28.6 tons of food. They directed that food to people in need.
"Our goal is to find out which establishments are currently donating food and which are not. And those who are not donating goods, to educate them to the fact that they are not held liable if food is not correctly prepared," Handler told PBS for a story earlier this year.
Waste-Not Orange's story is a powerful one for us as we enter the holidays. We are a nation of caring people -- as we have proven time and again.
There are millions of families with parents working hard every day, children doing their very best in school who simply can't keep up with the rising costs of food. Connecting them with perfectly good food is smart for all of us.
Missing the opportunity to make a vital difference in people's lives would seem such an unfortunate waste.
Read more about Waste Not Orange at wastenotoc.org.