Child hunger called 'a rampant problem now'
They show signs of anemia, changes in their hair, nails, weight, skin and growth. The children simply do not develop appropriately.
Dr. Sandra McKay of Mercy Clinic Pediatrics in O'Fallon sees at least one child a week in her office showing signs of nutrition deficiencies caused by a lack of food.
When she spots the signs, McKay said, she will turn to the parent and say, "Let's talk about what's going on in the home." In an office visit the previous week, McKay said July 26, she learned that a family had no food in their home.
"It's a rampant problem right now," McKay said, noting that at other Mercy offices cases of children suffering from hunger are seen on a daily basis.
Summer is a peak time since children aren't in school where they are able to be fed through the free and reduced-price lunch program.
"We can identify it, but the real problem is how to fix it," McKay said at a Children's Hunger Awareness Forum July 26 at Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service in St. Charles. The nonprofit agency offers comprehensive services to those in crisis situations, including services to homeless children and their families. The center helps to keep the children in school and meet basic needs.
Early intervention in cases where children are suffering from hunger makes a big impact, McKay said. If they are not given help, they will enter kindergarten with developmental delays and will struggle to catch up with other children, showing possible lower reading comprehension skills, behavioral problems, mental health issues, outbursts and other symptoms.
When the children get proper nutrition and therapy services, they can catch up to their peers, she said.
Miriam Mahan, executive director of Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, said statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that one in five children nationwide struggle with hunger. The rate is higher in Missouri, at 27 percent and affecting 316,450 children, she said.
In St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren Counties, 21,390 children will go hungry each day, Mahan said.
A client of Sts. Joachim and Ann on the panel, identified only as Emma, had a series of setbacks that left her and her young daughter living in a car. She eventually found help from Sts. Joachim and Ann, including food and a place to live.
Another client, Robert, had been living in his car and was down to a quarter tank of gas and no money when he met a Sts. Joachim and Ann social worker. He hadn't had any food for a couple days. Previous to a job layoff, he said, he was earning $80,000 a year in the construction industry. Once he lost his housing, he said, it was impossible to get a job because he had no address, phone or email account. Now employed and on the rebound, "I was at the very bottom, and this place was there for me," he said.
Dottie Kastigar, community development program coordinator for the Community Council of St. Charles County, said that too many people -- including herself at one time -- think there isn't a problem in what is considered middle-class areas. A recent count in the county located 1,089 homeless people in just one day, she noted.
Many of the people struggling with hunger and homelessness have chosen a car over a home because of their need to get to a job, Kastigar said.
The good news for her county, she said, is that the people who are struggling are new to poverty and "a helping hand can go a long way to help them get on their feet. St. Charles is a very compassionate community." Still, she said, residents of St. Charles need to provide more help for the nonprofit agencies that are assisting the needy.
Becky Hoskins, executive director of the Lincoln County Resource Board, said one way of helping with children's hunger is a new school district program sending food home to families for the weekend and summer.
Dan Rubery, attending the forum, later said that 15 parishes in the St. Charles Deanery have Society of St. Vincent de Paul conferences. Rubery, district president for the society, said they fed more than 15,000 people last year through food pantries. The society is especially good at assisting people in crisis situations, he said, and members are encouraged to work with other agencies to follow through on longer-term solutions.
Bruce Sowatsky, executive director of the Community and Children's Resource Board of St. Charles County, said a successful response from the community is possible. He noted that funding from a sales tax for children's mental health services approved by voters has meant a reduction in child abuse, teen runaways, teen pregnancies and teen crime while graduation rates have increased.
Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service in St. Charles traces its roots to the founding of Sts. Joachim and Ann Parish 31 years ago. Outreach to people in need is an important part of the parish mission, said Miriam Mahan, executive director of the care service, citing the Gospel mandate to feed the hungry and shelter and clothe those in need.
When the agency began, St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren Counties had few programs to meet needs, Mahan said.
At a forum on children and hunger, Mahan pointed to Father Robert Leibrecht, founding pastor of the parish. "He was missionary, and here we are as a result 31 years later," she said.
Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, a recipient of a grant from the Annual Catholic Appeal, has a mission of serving those in crisis and preventing homelessness and hunger.
For information see jacares.org or call Karen Runge at (636) 441-1302, ext. 263. Donations can be sent to Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, 4116 McClay Road, St. Charles, MO 63304.
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