What does hunger look like in the Tri-State? Statistics show it's often young, especially in Ohio

CINCINNATI - UPDATE: Freestore Foodbank's December holiday food distribution begins on Dec. 20. Learn more!

While some perceive childhood hunger as a malady that only affects third-world countries, it exists in our region and at a higher rate than the national average.

According to Feeding America, the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity, Ohio ranks ninth in the nation in terms of food insecurity among children--at a rate of 16.1 percent.

Some of the rural counties including Adams, Pike and Scioto, reported rates of more than 30 percent, double the national average of 14.7 percent.

Number of food insecure served in 20 counties served by the Freestore Foodbank

View Map of Food Insecurity in the Tri-State.

“Hunger has no boundaries and occurs everywhere: in the inner city, the suburbs, and rural areas of our multi-county region,” said Cincinnati Children’s Hospital pediatrician, Melissa Klein.

The numbers translate to an average of one in five children in the Tri-state area who experience food insecurity. In some of the more affected areas, the number is one in three.

The term "food insecurity" refers to the uncertainty or unlikelihood of being fed or receiving nutritious food. The USDA reports 15.9 million children nationwide live in a household where they’re unable to consistently consume healthy food. 

Nutrition: Crucial for kids

According to Klein, food insecurity is detrimental to the health, well-being and development of every child. Infants may be even more susceptible to problems as poor nutrition may adversely affect the critical period of maximal brain growth, she added.

Klein explained that hunger is often invisible in the United States, as children living in food insecure homes often have normal growth charts. She said new data actually points to obesity as being one of the signs of malnutrition in children.

“This is thought to be due to the fact that less expensive food may be less nutrient-dense, but more calorically dense,” she said. “So different to our innate thinking, a hungry child is going to look normal or may be obese, so unless we truly ask, we’ll never know.”

Klein and fellow physicians have investigated incidents of electrolyte imbalances, dehydration and even seizures among infants visiting primary care clinics. After interviewing the families, Klein said they discovered parents had been stretching infant formula by adding water, using less powder and feeding infants at a lower frequency.

Although families received supplemental formula from WIC, Klein explained families simply couldn’t keep up with their infants' needs.

“We found that 65 percent of the families were running out of WIC and almost 15 percent of families were stretching their infant’s formula in some way, which we found shocking,” she said. “Food insecure families were more likely to stretch.”

The KIND (Keeping Infants Nourished and Developing) Program is an effort to change these patterns. A collaborative effort by the medical community, the Freestore Foodbank, Kroger, Procer & Gamble and others, the program allows medical professionals to provide additional formula to clients at no charge when they recognize food insecurity exists for the family.

“KIND is the result of team work,” Klein said. “It takes a community to improve the health outcomes of our children.”

At the Freestore Foodbank, public relations specialist Sarah Cook explained that fighting childhood hunger in the region is an ongoing mission. She said the nonprofit organization serves approximately 100,000 children in a 20-county region. She said while counties in Kentucky and Indiana showed a slightly lower average than that of Ohio for food insecurity among children, the region as a whole still exceeded the national average of 15.9 percent.

"Hunger doesn't know a zip code," she said.

To help address the problem of food insecurity among children, Cook said the Freestore sponsors a number of programs designed to provide primary and supplemental meals. Cook explained while children may be receiving school lunches, there still may be gaps in the evenings, weekends and during the summer months. She said children who lack proper nutrition often find themselves at a disadvantage.

“Studies have shown that children who don’t eat a well-balanced diet or receive enough food, typically tend to score lower on achievement tests and are more likely to be absent from school,” she said. “Can you imagine if you’re a child sitting in class and you tummy is rumbling? How could you possibly focus on what the teacher is saying?”

Freestore Children’s Programs

Kids Café is designed to fill the gap for children who may not have food available at home in the evening. The program provides more than 115,000 meals each year which are distributed to children after school. LEARN MORE

Power Pack provides supplemental food for children during the weekend. Each Friday, volunteers distribute the Power Packs which contain more than a dozen nutritional and kid-friendly items. An estimated 4,000 children in more than 90 school locations receive Power Packs. LEARN MORE

Summer Food Service Program is designed to provide children with nutritious food during the summer months. The Freestore partners with a variety of venues throughout the region to provide daily lunches from June through August. LEARN MORE

KIND (Keeping Infants Nourished and Developing) is designed to provide infant formula to food insecure families. The additional amount alleviates the need to stretch formula, by diluting or feeding infants less. LEARN MORE

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