The signs of food insecurity and poor nutrition in children can be hard to detect, but both are affecting the growth and development of many local children. Parents are sometimes forced to choose between feeding their kids and paying their rent and utilities bills, and when schools shut down in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the school system's free and reduced meal programs shut down, as well. Without that vital resource, many students in our area, and around the U.S., suffered.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 29 million American adults and 12 million children have not always had enough to eat throughout the pandemic. In one survey of more than 1,000 families, 93.5 percent of respondents reported being food insecure in April 2020, compared to 71.5 percent in the previous fall, and 41 percent also reported a decrease in fruit and vegetable intake because of Covid-19.

To fill the healthy meal gap, last March, All Faiths Food Bank launched its annual Summer Hunger Campaign three months early. More than 50 percent of Sarasota County students and 100 percent of DeSoto County students rely on free and reduced meal programs at school. Last year, All Faiths helped provide 7.5 million meals to 42,000 students. The number of families helped continues to grow, as the negative financial impacts of Covid-19 linger.

All Faiths Food Bank volunteers helping distribute meals before spring break.

The most crucial part of children's development affected by poor nutrition is cognition. The brain's most important growth period takes place from birth to ages 3 and 4. If children are undernourished during this time, parents may witness speech and motor delays, as well as processing and learning issues that surface once they begin attending school.

Other negative health effects include behavioral issues like trouble focusing and acting out in school, developmental delays, frequent hospitalizations (even later in life) and fatigue. Short-term memory can also be affected, and children may become less social. Bone growth may be stunted, which can cause osteoporosis later in life, and children also face digestive and heart complications.

Nutrition is also linked to the immune system and disease susceptibility. While children are not at a high risk of contracting Covid-19, other autoimmune or viral illnesses that can develop. Catching colds more frequently can be a sign of a weakened immune system caused by poor nutrition. Conditions like asthma, type 2 diabetes, liver problems and polycystic ovarian syndrome are also possible in childhood and later in life.

Maria José Horen.

With a background in early childhood intervention programs focusing on mental health, All Faiths chief program officer Maria José Horen knows the signs of food insecurity in children all too well, but she says they can be hard to spot.

This is where All Faith's pediatric screenings come in. Medical staff ask families questions like, "How many times did you have to choose between buying food or paying for other expenses like utilities and medical care in the last month?" or, "Are you worried about running out of food before you can buy more?" Screenings can occur as early as birth. Horen says staff members are not waiting to ask these questions until hunger is experienced, but rather, right at the start of a child's journey.

"We also like to focus on the quality and nutrient value of the food that we distribute," says Horen. "We use a metric that categorizes food into high-, medium- and low-nutrition categories. Seventy to 80 percent of the food purchased for donation is high-nutrition."

This year, boxes of produce are provided to each family, and each box comes with recipe cards so families know how to cook the ingredients.

All Faith's food pantries are still available to families at a drive-through, where they can pick up 40-50 pounds of food, and backpacks filled with snacks are sent home with kids so they have food on the weekends. All Faiths also connects families with resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (most often known as food stamps) and Women, Infants and Children (or WIC).

Fifty-five partner agencies within the community have provided backpacks and food to All Faiths to keep programs like Summer Hunger going strong. In 2020, the organization saw a 60 percent increase in meals needed compared to 2019, and a 53 percent increase in the number of families in need of support compared to 2019.

All Faiths also runs a Food and Research Center at its location in DeSoto County. Distribution of food occurs there, but people can also get help filing their taxes and signing up for benefits like food stamps. Families are also encouraged to fill out surveys about the ways they can be served better. Some of this information goes to national organizations like Feeding America, which provides grants to food banks nationwide.

"We need to invest in these kids. It may be hard to identify hunger, but we know the lasting effects it can have," says Horen. "We want them to become successful citizens, work and impact their community. So we need to intervene earlier. It's cheaper to invest in food now than when they go to the hospital for malnutrition. It's not only the right thing to do, but better in the long run."

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