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Dr. Bill Frist Headshot

What Childhood Poverty Means

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This post is part of a series on childhood poverty in the United States in partnership with Save the Children and Julianne Moore. Moore leads the organization's Valentine's Day campaign, through which cards are sold to support the fight against poverty in the U.S. To learn more or to purchase the cards, click here.

More than one in five American children lives in poverty. In my home state Tennessee it is an astounding one in four.

And it's only getting worse. Less than four years ago, the national number was one in six children. Childhood poverty has increased 18% since 2000, as 2.5 million more children live in poverty today. But those are just cold, hard numbers. It's what happens to kids who happen to be born into poverty that matters.

Childhood poverty does not just mean a family of four makes below $23,050 a year (it's estimated that a family needs over twice that income to actually meet basic needs). No, childhood poverty limits access to the simplest, most basic things such as healthy foods, books, the Internet, and a secure place to play, exercise, or even sleep.

It means poor children,nearly half of whom are overweight, grow up with worse health..

It means at the age of four, poor children are already 18 months behind developmentally.

It means without early education programs, poorer children struggle and are 25% more likely to drop out of high school.

It means they are more likely to become teen parents, commit a violent crime, and be unemployed as adults.

It is a sad fact that at birth, one in five Americans today is well behind in the pursuit of happiness. The evidence increasingly points to the fact that once a child falls behind in the crucial early years, they may never catch up.

As a doctor, I focus on the devastating, long-lasting impact poverty has on a child's health. Simply put, on average, the lower on the "socio-economic ladder" a child falls, the shorter life he will live. Americans in the lowest income category are more than three times more likely to die before the age of 65 than those in the highest income bracket.

For a child, a healthy body, a strong heart, normal development, and progressive learning all require adequate and balanced nutrition. But poor families too often don't have access to nearby, affordable healthy foods. This stands as a major reason that debilitating chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes disproportionately afflict these impoverished youths.

"Food deserts" are those all too frequent regions of a city or rural areas, wherever poverty may exist, where affordable, healthy, fresh and nutritious foods are nowhere to be found. A 2011 Food Trust Report found that nearly one million Tennesseans, including 200,000 children, live in communities underserved by healthy food-providing supermarkets.

Across America 23.5 million live in areas that lack stores selling affordable, nutritious food. Without access to healthy foods, the cheap, fried, over-processed foods that accelerate the path to obesity become the mainstay diet. And the cause of early death.

This can be fixed. And an effective way to do so is for enterprising grocery retailers to partner with others in the private sector.

For example, just this year the Partnership for a Healthier America secured commitments from seven leading grocery companies to build new stores in areas where they're needed most. All told, these commitments will bring fresh, affordable foods to ten million people!

Calhoun Enterprises alone will be building ten new stores in Alabama and Tennessee, creating 500 new jobs while figuratively bringing water to these deserts. And forward-thinking companies are increasingly learning that such "social partnering" not only helps the health and welfare of millions of Americans, but it also improves their own bottom lines.

And our government can also be a lot smarter. For many impoverished children, the majority of their meals, breakfast, lunch and even an afternoon snack, come from their schools. In 2010, almost half of all Tennessee students received government-subsidized school lunches. However, for longer life and better learning, we as tax-paying parents and citizens must insist on trading out pizza and tater tots for more whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables.

Tennessee has recently started on this process. In June of last year, Tennessee, along with Kentucky and Illinois, joined a USDA pilot program for the "Community Eligibility Option," allowing kids in low-income areas to skip the applications and red tape and receive the benefits of a free, healthy breakfast and lunch at their schools.

Nationally, last month the Obama administration overhauled the school lunch program for the first time in 15 years. Overall the menu will include items with less sodium, more whole grains and a greater selection of fruits and vegetables. Don't worry, pizza will still be on the menu, but made with better ingredients.

Partnerships that focus on health and nutrition between the public and private sector, and between faith-based and secular nonprofits, will help lift children from the dire consequences of poverty.

America is the wealthiest nation in the world. The most technologically advanced. The most generous and accepting. We are the fastest car on the fastest track. We cannot afford to leave more than a fifth of our children behind.