Thursday, August 25, 2011

Starving in the Land of Plenty

Recent data from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) shows that 25% of California households with children are experiencing food hardship (from New America Media).

Latinos and rural residents were most affected. In agricultural Fresno County, for example, 68.6% of public school students were receiving free or reduced lunches, which means their families were suffering from material (and likely food) insecurity. The county is also 59% Latino. In Los Angeles County, which is over 63% Latino, 65.6% of students were receiving free or reduced lunches.

California also has four of the nation’s 20 metropolitan areas with the worst food hardship.  Fresno was fifth in the nation, with 32.6% of its residents facing food insecurity. The Riverside-San Bernadino-Ontario area ranked eighth (30.4%), the Bakersfield area ranked 11th (29.5%) and the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area ranked 18th (28.3%).

Starving In Front of Gratuitous Wealth
With over 15 million people, at a rate of 28.3% the LA area alone has over 4,300,000 residents suffering food insecurity. This statistic is particularly stark when juxtaposed with the phenomenal wealth found in Los Angeles. Here is a list of just its billionaires (all 34 of them), from the Forbes list of 400 wealthiest people on the planet:
19. Kirk Kerkorian, $10 billion
25. Sumner Redstone, $8.4 billion
38. Donald Bren, $5.7 billion
39. Eli Broad, $5.5 billion
45. David Geffen, $4.5 billion
52. Barbara Davis, and Family, $4 billion
52. David Murdock, $4 billion
70. Bradley Wayne Hughes, $3.2 billion
78. Haim Saban, $2.8 billion
83. Stephen Spielberg, $2.7 billion
89. Jerold Perenchio, $2.6 billion
112. Ronald Burkle, $2.3 billion
116. Patrick Soon-Shiong, $2.2 billion
125. Alfred Mann, $2.1 billion
125. Steven Udvar-Hazy, $2.1 billion
133. Michael Milken, $2 billion
153. David Hearst, $1.9 billion
153. George Hearst, $1.9 billion
181. Franklin Booth, $1.7 billion
181. Louis Gonda, $1.7 billion
181. Anthony Pritzker, $1.7 billion
181. Tom Gores, $1.7 billion
198. Ming Hsieh, $1.6 billion
235. John Anderson, $1.4 billion
235. Charles Munger, $1.4 billion
258. Gary Michelson, $1.3 billion
283. Alan Casden, $1.2 billion
283. Robert Day, $1.2 billion
283. Roy Disney, $1.2 billion
283. Leslie Gonda, $1.2 billion
283. Alec Gores, $1.2 billion
283. George Joseph, $1.2 billion
320. Edward Roski, $1.1 billion
346. William Hilton, $1 billion

Insult to Injury
As terrible as it is to have so many hungry children, the problem is exacerbated by the draconian eligibility requirements for CalFresh, the California version of the federal food program. Many are no doubt discouraged from participating because of the finger-imaging requirement, particularly those concerned about being deported.

The New America Media article also suggested that the new federal Super Committee that is set to propose solutions to the federal deficit will slash federal food programs. Considering that state governments have been gutting programs for children, seniors and the poor in order to close their deficits, this fear is not at all unrealistic. In fact, it could be argued that the Super Committee’s mandate is precisely to impose austerity on the most vulnerable and politically least powerful members of society so that the wealthiest can continue to enjoy their privilege and luxury.

Health and Education Implications
Under- and malnourished mothers are much more likely to have babies born prematurely, with low birth weights or with significant health problems. Children who are not receiving adequate nutrition can suffer from iron deficiency anemia and are at risk for a host of developmental and cognitive impairments. Any of these can have a large impact on school-readiness and academic achievement.

However, it is not just hunger and lack of calories that places children at risk. Families that cannot afford to eat nutritious foods will often compensate with food that is cheaper but less nutritious, particularly junk foods, increasing the risks for obesity and diabetes. Such diets tend to be rich in sweets, particularly sugary drinks, and increase the risk of cavities and dental problems. This, too, can hinder academic achievement as students without insurance may be missing class and have trouble concentrating due to pain.

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