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Kids, Poverty, and Help

As parents, we all want the very best for our children. Many parents in the Maine Highlands are challenged though – because they lack resources and supports to really “do” the things that they want for their child.

Our region has the highest poverty in the state – yes, even more than Washington County! It doesn’t mean that most people aren’t working if they are able; it means often that they are working more than one full time job that doesn’t pay a livable wage. Wages haven’t kept pace with the cost of living, which I am sure we all have noticed in one way or another.

Perhaps most concerning to me is the high amount of food insecurity that kids in our region experience – about 1 in every 3 kids are hungry each day. We know how important good nutrition is, especially during childhood when their bodies and brains are developing – the structures that are going to support them for the rest of their lives. Yet many families are unable to afford quality foods, or to purchase enough food to really fill up their child’s belly regularly.

Piscataquis County has the highest rate of food insecurity in Maine – across all age populations. More than one-third of our kids live with chronic food insecurity; that’s when you are unsure where your next meal will come from, or the nutritional value of the food that is being eaten is not very robust. Maybe both. It isn’t a matter of not planning or living on a budget – it is more simple than that. It is just not having enough money to cover all of the bills and having to make hard decisions that always leave something off the list. It is the increasing prices of food and the lack of growth in wages. It also can be making the hard choice between food and paying the rent or buying a child’s medication.

Regardless of the cause, I think we all can agree that no child should go hungry. I also believe that no one should go hungry, most especially our children.

The stress of poverty is probably the most toxic kind of stress that can happen to someone. For children, it can be particularly harmful. They literally “feel” the stress that their parents are experiencing – even in utero – and it can affect their brain development, their behavior and their overall physical growth. The earlier poverty starts and the longer it goes on, the more significant the impact can be for children. It can affect their brain development, their language or communication skills.

Have you ever had too much caffeine? How does that make you feel? You heart beats more rapidly, your hands might shake a little, it might be hard for your to focus or feel safe. Our children feel like this when they are hungry, when they are under stress. I once had a little boy tell me if felt like his “skin hurt” and it did.

Toxic stress literally changes the chemicals in our body – especially cortisol, which is the “fight or flight” hormone produced by our adrenal glands. Too much cortisol – the body’s response to stress – can impair our ability to think and to learn, cause sleep disruption problems, lower our immune ability to we get sick more often, cause decreased bone density, or increase abdominal fat (just to name a few). Too little cortisol, which happens when the adrenal glands are impaired and just to name a few, can also cause us to get sick more often, to be tired or unable to focus – especially in the morning or afternoon or cause depression.

Experiencing not having enough to eat is incredibly stressful on the young child. It often affects their behavior substantially, causing aggression or passivity, fear and more anxiety. It restricts their learning and sleep, and generally makes them often sicker.

There really is no need for anyone to be hungry. The least we can do for our children is to make sure that their bellies are full and their parents know that there is enough food for them to eat dinner tonight. And, every night. What are you going to do to help?

How do we do this? Well, donations to our local food cupboards are always a good option. By providing small amounts of cash, these food cupboards can purchase food locally for distribution to our neighbors. Buy a few extra cans of veggies or tuna fish and put it on the shelf at Will’s for someone to take is another. Making a a little larger casserole and sharing it with a neighbor is another. Ask your child’s teacher if they need something – like a bag of tangerines for a healthy snack for all of the kids, or some healthy granola bars.

We all can make a difference, every day, for so many. And it takes so little.

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