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Too Many American Students Are Experiencing Hunger

Posted: 10/11/11 11:55 AM ET

A new school year is now underway and as I look back on my time as a student, I remember the transition every fall to new classes, friends and homework. I also remember picking up my free lunch cards from the office every week, and the period when I was too embarrassed to use them. For plenty of us, navigating certain childhood indignities was a part of life, but few are as basic, prohibitive or preventable as the current lack of essential food necessary to keep our nation's children fueled, energized and able to stay focused in school. Ultimately, I was grateful to have those worn, paper lunch tickets. I was grateful to have the support.

As a former Philadelphia public charter high school History and English teacher, education remains one of my biggest passions. I know firsthand the challenges faced by today's youth and I remember those my peers and I faced during childhood. The education gap is expanding and classrooms, both domestic and abroad, are increasingly competitive arenas. Malnourished bodies and minds don't win competitions.

The statistics are staggering. Nearly 49 million of our fellow citizens live at risk of hunger. That's one in six, including 16 million children, who too often wake up stressed about their next meal. That's 16 million future doctors, scientists, lawyers, school teachers -- 16 million of our next door neighbors -- who aren't getting what they need to thrive, simply because they don't have access to enough food. We all need nourishment to excel.

It is well documented that hunger wreaks havoc on physical and cognitive development. It diminishes a person's ability to function and is particularly devastating among children due to their increased vulnerability and the potential for long-term consequences. Food insecurity is directly linked to poorer school performance: hungry students are more likely to get sick, 30 percent more likely to have a history of hospitalization, have trouble focusing in school, and are 1.4 times more likely to have to repeat a grade. The correlation is clear. The trick is turning that into a real solution.

In August, Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger relief organization, released the results of Map the Meal Gap: Child Food Insecurity 2011, a first ever study that examines child hunger on the county level. The study shows that rates of child food insecurity range from a low of seven percent, in Steele County, North Dakota, to highs of more than 50 percent in Zavala and Starr Counties, both in Texas. I was born in Chicago, and in Cook County, Illinois nearly one in four children is considered food insecure. The reality is, children are struggling with hunger in every county and congressional district in these United States.

During this prolonged economic downturn we need to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of child hunger in the USA now. We need to step up to help our struggling neighbors, family, and friends. There are many simple ways to help, including: writing to your local member of Congress about the importance of strengthening federal nutrition programs to increase access to food, contacting your local food bank to arrange a time to volunteer or help with fundraising events, create materials to educate families in your community about the location of after school programs, volunteer at a local food pantry once a week, donate food or funds, or simply talk about it among friends to help raise awareness within your community.

Together, we can help children -- our future -- move away from hunger and toward their goals. The consequences and cost of child hunger make addressing this issue an economic and societal imperative, never mind the obvious moral obligation. Three nutritious meals a day should not be an unobtainable luxury for millions of American children. But it is. Do something today to help us make a change.

You can follow Jesse on Twitter at: @Jessewilliams_