DN Editorial: 'H' is for hunger

Posted: December 20, 2010

SUNNY DAY, sweeping the clouds away . . . Can you tell me how to get, how to get to . . . the food pantry?

In a new Sesame Street storybook, Big Bird learns that "a food pantry is a place we go to when we need help getting food." It's something that millions of children already know. Ten million kids under six don't have enough nutritious food to live active, healthy lives.

The Big Bird storybook is part of a new Sesame Street initiative called "Food for Thought" that enlists the beloved Muppets to support families who are coping with uncertain or limited access to nutritious food. But there are lessons in it for everyone. (See www.sesamestreet.org/food.)

The website includes videos in the snappy Sesame Street style (which also will appear on TV) that promote good eating habits for kids: a Muppet rock song urging Elmo to try a new food - in this case, a kiwi - as well as a paean to breakfast as the most important meal of the day. The site also includes other videos and a "caregivers' guide" aimed at parents struggling to provide their kids with healthy food, for example, growing their own vegetables and visiting farmers' markets. The guide also offers poignant advice for parents trying to find the words to reassure small children who worry about having enough to eat, as well as older siblings who may decide to help out by eating less themselves. (Mariana Chilton, a Drexel University professor and hunger expert, was an adviser for the initiative.)

The initiative mostly maintains a delicate balance between acknowledging the experiences and fears of children and reassuring them that they aren't alone and that there are things they can do to make things better. Kids don't need to know how daunting reality can be: that Elmo's parents might not be able to buy kiwis if they live in a "food desert" without access to a supermarket - or that healthy foods cost much more than junk. It may not be necessary to point out in the video that millions of kids eat the most important meal of the day in a free school breakfast program.

(Not coincidentally, Elmo added his spin to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the $4.5 billion program signed into law this week that will allow schools to upgrade school lunches, during a special trip to the White House. In a video available at www.whitehouse.gov, Elmo says he's worried that there might not be any good food at school but White House chef Sam Kass reassures him that "because of this new law that was passed, we're gonna make sure that all food in school is healthy, nutritious and delicious.")

In some ways, recent efforts to combat hunger look half-full. In others, half-empty. While most children are giddy with excitement over their upcoming Christmas vacation, millions of others face a week away from regular meals. The U.S. House of Representatives last week passed the "Weekends Without Hunger Act," a five-year pilot program to develop models for providing food for children on weekends and during extended food holidays.

The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, but if it isn't passed now, it should be brought back next year. In Sesame Street's telling, Big Bird's trip to the food pantry is a matter-of-fact acknowledgement that some families need to turn to charity when the food stamps run out.

It's nothing for a child to be ashamed of. For the country that allows this situation to exist? That's another matter. *

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