URBANA — Thousands of children in Champaign County are dealing with a painful problem that often goes unnoticed: They don't know where their next meal is coming from, according to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank.
Foodbank spokeswoman Julie Melton said the food bank is currently serving about 33,000 children in its 14-county area who are food insecure, meaning the source of their next meal is uncertain, and 7,300 of those kids live in Champaign County.
"I think the biggest issue is, hunger is a hidden problem," she says.
To make it more visible, the food bank will host its sixth annual Hunger Symposium at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Provena Covenant Medical Center, 1400 W. Park St., U.
The symposium, which is free and open to the public, will focus on the effects of childhood hunger and how the food bank is addressing it through its Healthy Futures Initiative, which includes some new food pantries to serve students and their families at some area high schools.
The Eastern Illinois Foodbank says it its now serving a "staggering" 100,600 people considered to be food insecure, and one-third of them are children.
Melton says statistically, one in four children living in the food bank's service area are food insecure, but the food bank is serving a higher number than that through its programs.
Kids who are food insecure require more hospitalization, are at higher risk for chronic health conditions such as asthma and anemia and may have more dental problems. Food insecurity is also associated with a poorer quality of life that can keep kids from being fully involved in school and social activities, according to Feeding America, the national network of food banks that includes the Eastern Illinois Foodbank.
The hunger issue affecting 7,300 kids in Champaign County may be a result of the county's higher poverty level — 20.5 percent (according to 2006-2010 Census data), Melton said. The state poverty level is a hair over 14 percent, according to 2011 census data released this past week.
Champaign-Urbana has had a more affluent image, but Champaign County's poverty level is likely affected by its rural communities, Melton said.
But even working families are struggling to put food on the table, she says.
"Forty percent of families who receive food assistance have one working adult," she adds.
The food bank's Healthy Futures Initiative is a group of programs to alleviate childhood hunger, Melton says.
They include the BackPack Program, which sends backpacks of food home with school children who struggle with hunger on weekends, and the food bank's mobile food pantry that serves families with children in rural communities without their own food pantries. Melton said the foodmobile is currently targeting Ford, Piatt, Moultrie and Clay counties, but the food bank would like to expand this program.
Another part of the Healthy Futures Initiative are the food bank's new high school pantries that opened in Mattoon and Charleston this month, to be followed by one at Champaign Centennial High School in October, Melton said.
The food bank will stock the pantries and they'll be available for use by families of children who have been identified by the schools as suffering from hunger, Melton said.
How can the average family with enough food help?
Melton says the best way is to donate money to the food bank. The food bank can take a single donated dollar and buy $10 worth of food for needy families.
For more information: http://www.eifoodbank.org