Every June, millions of school-age children can barely contain their excitement at the thought of summer vacation. They are eager for family trips, summer camps and lazy afternoons splashing in a community pool.
But for millions of others, the long months of July and August are as empty as they are hot. These are the nearly 13 million American children who live at the brink of hunger, and who anticipate the summer for what it won't bring -- filling and nutritious food.
Last week, National Hunger Awareness Day was observed across the country as a chance to shine a light on an embarrassing and persistent problem -- hunger in a land of plenty. For the third year in a row, a coalition of national anti-hunger agencies came together to seek help in making sure that everyone has enough to eat.
This is no small task. All told, nearly 35 million Americans confront hunger on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis. And the situation is only getting worse.
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released figures showing that hunger in this country increased for the third consecutive year. Since 1999, hunger in America -- now called "food insecurity" by experts in the field -- rose by almost 4 million people.
Studies show that these devastating levels of hunger do not conform to our stereotyped notions of poverty. Seniors and children are overwhelmingly the beneficiaries of federal food stamp benefits.
Nearly 40 percent of households that receive emergency food -- food from soup kitchens, food pantries and food banks -- contain one adult or more working 40 hours per week. And well over half of these people have at least a high school diploma.
High school-age children and younger suffer the most once school lets out. Heavily subsidized breakfast and lunch programs feed more than 22 million children every day during the school year.
But the summer recess wreaks havoc on these kids' nutritional health. Without the school safety net, barely 20 percent of them receive the same lunches they get at school. Vacation may be imminent, but hunger does not take a holiday, and the repercussions are immediate -- low-income children are left to fend for themselves and can't always find the food they need to get by.
Increasingly, the media is flooded with stories of children -- and adults -- who are faced with what appears to be the opposite of a hunger problem. Amid constant media attention focused on America's obesity epidemic, the hunger crisis often gets lost.
In fact, the two problems -- over- and under-consumption -- are actually inextricably linked: Low-income families, struggling to put dinner on the table, are more likely to turn to high-calorie, low-nutrient foods as a cheap source of sustenance.
These foods can cause rapid weight gain, even while offering little in the way of essential nutrition. In other words, millions of poor Americans, while visibly overweight, are literally starved of the kind of nourishment that leads to healthy bodies and active, productive lives.
Nowhere is hunger more prevalent than here in Southern California. It is with good reason that the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services calls us, "the hunger capital of America."
A report released by the department in 2001 shows that one out of every 14 hungry Americans lives in Los Angeles County. This affects us all -- African American, white or Latino -- and is a drain not just on our community's resources but on our collective conscience as well.
All over the country last week, individuals and faith-based organizations, private companies and nonprofit groups joined hands to make a positive difference in the lives of those people who need it most. By raising awareness about hunger, through volunteer efforts and financial donations, National Hunger Awareness Day went a long way toward transforming our society and making it one that fosters inclusiveness and encourages self-sufficiency.
Our nation was founded with a promise of freedom. Certainly that includes a promise that the poor among us don't starve as they work toward their own American dream.
The message of National Hunger Awareness Day was that we can and must do better -- this is a rallying cry that should unite all Angelenos and all Americans.
Antonio Villaraigosa is a Los Angeles city councilman. H. Eric Schockman is president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.
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