Child hunger in Missouri demands our attention

My sister noticed a child in her kindergarten class listlessly sitting as other children played and participated in projects. He continuously looked down, never looking up at anyone or for anything. She became concerned and took the child aside, gently asking what was wrong. With sad eyes he looked up at her and his softly spoken words pierced her heart.

“ I’m hungry.”

“Did you not eat this morning?” my sister asked.

“No ma’am,” he replied. “We didn’t have anything to eat.”

Fighting back tears, she took the child by the hand to the cafeteria where she asked the staff to prepare something, which they did. Can you see my sister sitting with this child in this big, empty cafeteria as she watched that five-year-old child eat a meal, the first one in perhaps days? How can we allow such scenes to take place? We are Americans. More than that, we are followers of Christ.

Such a gut-wrenching scene could be played out time after time in schools and homes across Missouri. Hunger is a problem too often overlooked, one that could be solved if everyone – in this bountiful land in which we are so blessed to live – would help just a little. I realize many churches are attuned to this issue, but often solely in the context of overseas mission work. That is right and proper, but I wonder if Missouri Southern Baptists realize that 23.2 percent of Missouri children live in homes that do not have sufficient food for everyone in their family.

A new study ranks Missouri fifth-highest in the nation in child hunger, according to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief organization. Due mainly to the recession, food banks and church pantries are seeing increased demand for food. For example, the Southeast Missouri Food Bank which services Mississippi, Ripley, Wayne, Pemiscot, Carter and Dunklin counties (among the poorest in the state) has distributed 1.3 million more pounds of food this year to date, compared to last year. And it is still not enough. Missouri has experienced a 3.2 percent increase in child hunger during the last year, according to Feed America. About 64,000 people – about 35 percent of which are children – live below the poverty level in southeast Missouri alone.

Other factors enter into the equation. For example, 36,416 children in Missouri have a mom or dad in prison, according to Prison Fellowship Ministries. The lack of two parents in the home exacerbates poverty and ultimately, hunger.

Missouri’s abundance of rural areas is where poverty is more prevalent, often continuing through generations of the same family, said Karen Green, Southeast Missouri Food Bank executive director.

“Children are so vulnerable because they can’t fend for themselves,” she told the Southeast Missourian newspaper. “It’s a lot easier to dismiss hunger in an adult because we assume they’re able to go out and get something to eat, even if it’s from a dumpster. Experience tells us that when children experience even occasional hunger they may be have trouble concentrating, show aggressive tendencies, stunted growth, and increased likelihood of obesity.”

So what are we to do? Here are some suggestions:

• Pray and ask God to use you to help combat this problem.

• Volunteer once a month to serve at a shelter, food pantry or soup kitchen.

• Grow a garden to feed the needy.

• Collect canned goods for a food bank.

• Glean farm fields of unharvested produce.

• Sponsor a food sack drive.

• Lead your church to host a conference on hunger.

The Bible clearly addresses the issue of hunger. God cares greatly about the poor and hungry (Isa. 58:6-7, Luke 6:20-21); God works by means of His people through the discipline of regular gleaning to provide for those in need (Deut. 24:19-21); God calls His people to be actively involved in ministry to those in need ( Luke 3:11); ministry to the poor is a service to God (Matt 25:35-40); mistreatment and neglect of the poor results in God’s judgment (Matt 25:41-46); ministry to those in need demonstrates the reality of being a follower of Jesus (James 2:15-17).

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