Root Cause Conversation: Childhood Hunger
INTERVIEW: April M. Douglass-Bright, MD, Division Head, General Pediatrics, Cooper University Heath Care
The Food Bank of South Jersey, the region’s leading hunger-relief organization, speaks with healthcare, political and community leaders to explore insights on food insecurity and the root causes for hunger in South Jersey.
When it comes to speaking about child food insecurity in South Jersey, Dr. April M. Douglass-Bright, MD, Division Head, General Pediatrics, Cooper University Heath Care, is all too familiar with the topic – it’s immediacy, it’s impact on children and the threat it poses to the wellness of South Jersey’s most food-vulnerable population.
As an advocate for child food security, Dr. Douglass-Bright is committed, along with her Cooper University Health Care colleagues, including Tangela Thompson, Community Outreach Coordinator, and Max Kursh, Director of Community and Population Health, to identifying, prioritizing and treating the impact of hunger on her patients – particularly for communities subjected to social determinants that signal risks to health and wellness to children in the City of Camden and throughout the region.
What is important to understand, about food insecurity – and the City of Camden?
Dr. Douglass-Bright: The City of Camden is a community that is comprised of multiple minority groups, living in a food desert, with limited transportation options to travel to food resources in neighboring communities. Education. Access. Transportation. These three gateways to food security are identifiable pathways to creating a South Jersey that can be one of food stability for all. Understanding the state of food inequity today in the City of Camden, and throughout South Jersey, and working to define new routes to food security for Cooper patients and the community at large is, at this time, a vital mission for the Cooper team. Education. Access. Transportation.
The Food Bank of South Jersey, during 2020, provided nearly one million meals to a swelling population of food-insecure children throughout our region – over 60,000 children living with the daily threat of hunger. How prevalent is child food insecurity and youth hunger at this time, due to the pandemic and what are you seeing in terms of the impact of hunger for South Jersey kids today?
Dr. Douglass-Bright: According to studies, at one point during the past year, 40 percent of parents of kids under six reported job or income loss related to the coronavirus pandemic. More than one in five parents reported food insecurity in their household. Early childhood is the most intensive period of brain and body development, and hunger and hardship at this age can have long-term implications for children. The consequence of this is children living in food-insecure households. This is particularly pervasive in minority communities and communities that have limited access to healthy food resources or transportation to supermarkets – food deserts, which threaten access to viable pathways to nutritious food choices for families. All too often, it is the youngest of our community, infants to children just starting school, who suffer the greatest deprivations. Food insecurity in the early years can have an immediate and lasting impact on overall health, learning, school readiness, and behavior – it is critical that, as a community, we do all we can to fight childhood hunger.
With 1 in every 5 children suffering from food insecurity in South Jersey, in what other ways was this amplified by the unprecedented global pandemic?
Dr. Douglass-Bright: Children living in food-insecure households are at risk for many issues. According to studies we at Cooper review, including a Coronavirus Tracking Survey conducted by Urban Institute, four in 10 parents (40.3 percent) living with a child under age 6 reported they or their family experienced a loss of employment or work-related income during the first six months of the pandemic, and this economic turbulence can make it difficult for families to meet basic needs at a sensitive point in early child development. Parents who experienced a job loss or a loss in job-related income reported using a variety of coping strategies, including cutting household spending on food (34.4 percent), using all or most of their savings (26 percent) and increasing credit card debt (25.5 percent). As the recession persists, many families may have few resources to weather further hardship. In the recent 2020 study by the Urban Institute, more than 1 in 5 parents (22.9 percent) reported that their household experienced food insecurity, which was the most common form of material hardship, in the past 30 days, followed by unmet need for health care because of costs in the past 30 days (21.4 percent). Although a smaller share reported struggling to pay utilities (13 percent) or rent (11.8 percent), these challenges may indicate a risk of future housing instability.
Earlier this year, Cooper University Health Care received a $25,000 grant from No Kid Hungry to help address childhood hunger and decrease food insecurity in young children. No Kid Hungry, a campaign from the national nonprofit Share Our Strength, has invested $3 million in grants to organizations focused on early childhood to help decrease food insecurity among children under the age of six. How is this grant being implemented at this time?
Dr. Douglass-Bright: Championed by my colleague, Tangela Thompson, No Kid Hungry grant funding is currently providing fresh produce to families in Cooper’s current patient population who have children ages five and younger or those enrolled in a Head Start program. Along with the weekly produce distribution, which Tangela oversees, participating families will qualify for supermarket shopping tours and nutrition classes along with supermarket gift cards. The grant will also cover transportation costs for Camden families to shop at full-service stores located in the surrounding suburbs. We are bringing fresh produce into the community – to families who otherwise may need to wait until a planned trip to a supermarket to have access to fresh fruits.
What do you feel needs to be done to bring food security to children throughout our region?
Dr. Douglass-Bright: We are living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Yet, food insecurity has increased dramatically for our nation, and here at home in South Jersey, due to the pandemic. Food insecurity presents many challenges for our society. Most concerning to us, the impact hunger has on children, which is an impact that is felt twice as likely for children of color – a population in our region that suffers greatly due to a lack of access to healthy foods. It is our responsibility, as a community of care, to place the health and wellness of all of our children above all else – fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy meal options, access to consistent food sources – we have a duty to provide our children with the nutrition needed to live a healthy life.