WINFIELD – Child hunger has reached the level of "public health crisis” in DuPage County, according to Loaves & Fishes Community Services.
The issue motivated the nonprofit group to host a forum Friday at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield to raise awareness and get the community involved in providing solutions.
One in every six children in DuPage County experiences food insecurity, according to Feeding America data. That rate has remained consistent the last several years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods or uncertain ability to acquire these foods."
Experts in the fields of nutrition, pediatrics, childhood education and preventative medicine gathered to discuss how child food insecurity is linked to other family hardships and adverse health outcomes.
The event began with a presentation by Dr. John Cook, associate professor in the pediatrics department at Boston University School of Medicine.
Cook highlighted his research that connects food insecurity in children with harmful growth problems, compromised immune systems and energy deficits.
"Creating the right conditions for early childhood development is far more effective, and cost efficient, than addressing problems at a later age," Cook said in a news release. "If we want to be prosperous, and I think everyone does, we need to make sure our children have enough of the right kinds of food to eat."
The panel of Chicago-area experts then discussed the community’s role in ensuring proper nutrition for children. Roadblocks include lack of transportation to food outlets for low-income families, noncompliance with medical staff, and a lack of education regarding healthy lifestyle choices.
Improving healthy eating habits and better lifestyle choices starts with a family-oriented approach, said Linda Van Horn, clinical nutritionist and professor at Northwestern University.
"It goes without saying that it is obviously the parents and adults that role model these behaviors for their children," Van Horn said. "You can't get junior to eat his broccoli if Dad is saying, 'No, sorry, I don't put that stuff in my mouth.'"
Simply getting to food pantries or medical services can be a challenge for low-income families, an issue particularly prevalent in DuPage County, according to Dr. Jennifer McNulty, medical director for pediatric emergency medicine and pediatrics at Edward Hospital.
McNulty summoned the community to find creative solutions to the transportation obstacle.
“When you talk about the infrastructure parts, I think that's a barrier in DuPage County because we're a suburb. You can't walk across the street.” she said. “It will be interesting to try to have people from this group as a whole from DuPage County, who know those specific challenges, to find solutions.”
Talking to parents on a daily basis about healthy eating and exercise programs is crucial to early childhood development programs, according to Theresa Hawley, executive director of the Illinois Governor's Office of Early Childhood Development.
Hawley emphasized that if children are hungry when they attend early childhood programs, they won't be able to engage in activities.She said food insecurity is an indicator of other things going on in a family and that recognizing the importance of outside factors will create a better experience for children.
“If we only provide early childhood education, and we don't look at housing security of the family, we don't look at the long-term self-sufficiency of the family, and we're not looking at access to health care, we're not going to have the impact on the child's development that we want to have.”