Zionsville — Hattie B. Stokes Elementary Principal Kelly Sollman, one of the panelists at the Tuesday, March 6, Feeding Our Future conference, said she would try not to cry as she related an incident with a pupil.
“I won’t make it,” Sollman predicted.
But the story illuminated a heart-rending visual of the challenge many Boone County children face daily in finding enough to eat.
“I stopped a little boy one morning, because I saw he had an apple in his pocket,” Sollman said. Pupils aren’t allowed to take food into classrooms, she reminded him, and asked why he had the apple.
“I just wanted to take it home for my little sister,” the boy said.
That simple, unselfish reply likely made more of an impact on the 152 people at the first of two panel discussions on child hunger than the statistics with which Sollman began her presentation.
The presentations, along with a Taste of Boone County and exhibits by about 20 social service and health issue vendors, were part of a seminar with the goal of eliminating childhood hunger here by 2020.
Theresa Hanners, executive director of The Caring Center, said her agency has joined others to pursue the “lofty goal.”
She told of encountering a woman at a local grocery. The woman, who was crying, told Hanners that everywhere she went, “I feel invisible. Nobody wants to acknowledge me.”
view the invisible
It’s time, Hanners told the audience, to acknowledge Boone County’s “invisibles.”
“Sometimes, guys, we have to be the voice for those who are hungry,” Hanners said. She told the woman, “We see you ... but you’re putting me on a mission. I’m going to say to Boone County, it’s time we slow down” and help those people who have been ignored in the regular rush of life.
Sollman was the last panelist, but had perhaps the most emotional impact. Of the 447 pupils at Stokes, more than 71 percent receive free or reduced lunches; 22 percent of those children are classified as “special needs”; 55 percent come from a “non-traditional family”; some children have neither the language nor the basic socialization skills to understand “what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate,” she said.
By nontraditional, Sollman said, “I mean that we have multiple families living together in apartments. We have bio-mom living with a boyfriend who also has a couple of kids.”
Budget cuts have forced Stokes to cut back its Kids At The Table program, which now provides tutoring and dinner to 73 children three afternoons a week; when founded in 2010, it had been offered on every school day. The estimated $790-a-week cost is covered by federal funding, Sollman said, but she would like to expand it to reach more children.
Joining Sollman on the panel were Robin Miner, of the Indianapolis Food Resource Network; Dr. Jane Buroker, a pediatrician, member of The Caring Center board of directors and Zionsville resident; and moderator Bill Stanczykiewicz, of the Indiana Youth Institute.
THE FIRST DOMINO
Hunger, Stanczykiewicz said, is “the first domino” that leads to teenage pregnancy, housing shortages, crime, substance abuse and other social issues.
“We can talk about all those things and we should talk about all those things,” he said. “The first domino is hunger.”
Nearly 20 percent of Boone County’s children — about 3,000 — are “food insecure,” which means they and their families have limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate foods. This number, Dr. Buroker said, was “shocking.”
Being food insecure is not the same as being hungry, he explained. “Not all families that are food insecure are going to experience hunger,” she said.
But studies have found that lack of access to enough food to lead an active, healthy life is “a critical precursor and ongoing need for children and adults” to avoid health issues, she said.
“We’re finding that (food insecurity) impacts multiple areas of development in children,” Dr. Buroker said. Children in homes that have an inadequate supply of food are 60 percent more likely to develop upper respiratory infections, three times more likely to have stomachaches, and 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized at least once as an infant.
“Children in food insecure homes have higher anxiety,” she said. “We see a higher rate of irritability and mood swings” in children as young as 3. Teenagers from food insecure homes are “five times more likely to attempt suicide,” Dr. Buroker said. Food insecure children are “75 percent more likely to be socially disruptive.”
Miner, who said she was “sincerely impressed” by the efforts of Boone County organizations to address the food insecurity issue, outlined the state and national issue.
In 2009, 24.5 percent of Indiana’s 1.586 million children were food insecure, she said. In Boone County, 13.7 of all children had experienced food insecurity.
“When we look at child food insecurity in particular ... it’s an educational problem,” Miner said. “Workers who are hungry as children are not prepared physically, mentally, emotionally or socially to perform in the workplace,” she said, a prognosis that is irreversible.
Chronic under-nutrition is a factor in higher health care costs, increases job absenteeism, and leads to higher job turnover among adults, she said.
All of that is preventable, Miner said. Adequate food is available, but accessing the food is the issue.
“Those of us who understand what these issues are need to stand up for those who lack enough food and good nutrition,” she said.