If you are one of the millions of unsung heroes who work and volunteer at feeding programs, food banks and soup kitchens, the federal government has some good news for you.
The share of U.S. children who are severely underweight has fallen to 3.3 percent, a significant decline from the 5.1 percent underweight children reported in the 1970s.
This doesn’t mean “that there’s not still hunger. We don’t want to go that far,” said Cheryl Fryar, one of the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) researchers who wrote the new report on underweight children and adolescents.
But it certainly is a positive trend, she said, noting that percentage figure translates into 2.4 million people ages 2 to 19. To be underweight, a child or teen has to weigh less than the fifth percentile on federal growth charts, which is based on age, sex, body mass and height.
For instance, a 5-year-old boy who is 3 feet 4 inches tall but weighs only 31 or 32 pounds would meet this definition of underweight, said Cynthia Ogden, the other co-author of the NCHS report.
Children can be underweight for several reasons, including malnutrition, lack of food, underlying illness, eating disorders and, in babies, failure to thrive. The data show that the percentage of severely underweight preschoolers has diminished from about 6 percent in the 1970s to slightly less than 3 percent by the mid-2000s. For children of elementary school age, the number reported to be underweight declined from about 5 percent in the 1970s to less than 3 percent now.
The 12-to-19 age group stayed constant with about 4 percent in the underweight category.
The NCHS report, based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, is echoed by a second federal study that tracks children 5 and younger in low-income families. According to the Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance (PedNSS), the share of very young, low-income children who are severely underweight fell from about 9 percent in the early 1970s to 4.5 percent in 2008.
I think studies like these are prima facie evidence that the billions of dollars spent on federal nutrition programs - combined with state programs, food banks, private charities, dedicated anti-hunger professionals and an army of volunteers - are getting the job done.
This week, the Department of Agriculture will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which was created to handle federal food programs and bring “an end to hunger in America … for all time.”
FNS programs have responded to the recession; they now reach one in five Americans. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said 32 million Americans recently used the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the food stamp program).
Still, when it comes to media coverage of food issues, my impression is that headlines swing from “Help, we’re all eating too much” to “Help, too many Americans are still starving.” (Inexplicably, big baking competitions always seem to be the solution for our food problems, but that’s a column for another day.)
Bottom line, with the media scolding us either about obesity or hunger, low-profile reports that show solid progress, such as the NCHS and PedNSS data on underweight children, can get overlooked.
President Obama has set a goal of eliminating child hunger in the United States by 2015, and Mr. Vilsack says he has no doubt “we will rise to the challenge.”
If the number of severely underweight children and teens stands at 2.4 million - and the goal is to help this population reach normal weight - I would say that’s eminently doable.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.