With 26 percent of Kentucky children living in poverty, the state would appear to be perfect home to the nation’s first center designed to fight child hunger.
The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment will house the new Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center, thanks to a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and UK agricultural economist Alison Davis appeared on KET’s One to One to explains the mission and goals of the center.
The Impacts of Child Hunger
Before becoming agriculture secretary, Vilsack says he didn’t understand the extent of the poverty problem in rural America. He explains that 95 percent of counties with the highest child poverty rates and nutrition challenges are in rural areas. That geographic isolation can create unique challenges for the rural poor, such as a lack of local grocery options, greater distances to supermarkets, and fewer transportation options to reach those stores.
Vilsack explains that children who don’t get proper nutrition or are obese because of poor food opportunities are more likely have greater health care costs and educational challenges.
“The reality is that a lot of these kids come to school and they haven’t had breakfast and they don’t learn as well,” Vilsack explains. He says that a third to half of the calories children consume come from school meals, which leaves him worried about what impoverished students have available to eat at home at night, on the weekends, and during summer break.
Not Poor by Choice
The secretary sees USDA’s role as being a facilitator to unite the various groups trying to tackle food and poverty issues, and a funder to help find and support the most effective programs. He says his goals are to ensure the nutritional needs of the next generation are being properly met and to give poor families their best shot at entering and staying in the middle class.
“Most people don’t choose to be poor,” Vilsack says. “Most people are really working hard, playing by the rules, doing what they can they can to take care of their families, and they like to know that there is somebody who is caring for them and caring about them. That’s basically the gist of what we’re trying to do at USDA.”
Empowering Communities to Find Their Own Solutions
UK’s Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center will coordinate grants to selected local agencies in Kentucky and other impoverished states to develop solutions for food insecurity problems in their communities, and to strengthen existing child nutrition programs.
Professor Alison Davis says she doesn’t want UK telling communities what they should do. Instead she wants the center to provide assistance and guidance to good ideas that arise from the grassroots.
“Each community, even though they’re all rural, even though we have very small counties, they’re all unique in their own way,” explains Davis. “So having them determine the solution that works best for their individual assets, for their unique needs, for their geography is really what we try to do.”
Vilsack says the center will evaluate the local programs it funds to determine which are the most successful, and then seek to replicate those strategies in other communities that face similar challenges.
Helping One Child Helps Everyone
Davis says UK was able to land the new center based on previous efforts through its Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky, which designed to empower citizens with tools, research, and guidance they need to improve their own communities. Davis acknowledges some rural people may be skeptical when university or government officials come into a small town saying they’re there to help. But she says the trust level between UK and rural Kentuckians continues to increase because they know the school has a true commitment to making the region better.
Davis says her goals for the Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center are for more families to get the help they’re already eligible for and for more children to get greater access to nutritious food. Vilsack adds that he wants to see dramatic reductions in the overall poverty rates for children, which will result in less taxpayer dollars going to entitlement programs and health care expenses.
“When we help an individual child or we help a family, we’re not just helping that child and that family,” Vilsack says. “We’re helping all of us.”