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Childhood hunger growing in Arizona suburbs

PHOENIX — A new study released Thursday is raising concerns over childhood hunger in Arizona.

The study from the Fair Share Education Fund looked at kids who are eligible for free or reduced school lunches from the National School Lunch Program, then paired that information with where those children live.

David Martinez, advocacy and outreach specialist with St. Mary’s Food Bank, said the study showed too many kids in Arizona are struggling with hunger.

“In Arizona nearly one in three kids go to bed hungry every night not knowing where their meals are coming from,” he said.

With 1.6 million kids living in Arizona, that means nearly 500,000 kids are affected.

But it’s not just the amount of kids that Kimberley Pope, state organizer with Fair Share’s Arizona branch, said was surprising, it was where those kids are living.

“Forty-five percent of those kids living in the suburbs,” she said.

That marks a drastic increase over the past few years in the number of kids dealing with hunger in Arizona’s suburbs.

Overall, kids who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program rose 4.2 percent between 2006-07 and 2010-11, but the number of kids who lived in suburbs who became eligible was growing at double that rate — 8.7 percent.

Eligibility for the National School Lunch Program is based off of the household income in which a child lives. For example, a child living in a family of four would need to have the household income at or below $23,850 to be eligible for free lunch.

Pope said the reason why eligibility has been growing more in Arizona’s suburbs is likely due to the Great Recession.

“We believe it’s because of the Great Recession, families who had jobs that were laid off,” she said. “Most of these families (that) actually receive the benefits to help feed their families, they’re working, they just aren’t working in jobs that pay them the caliber that they had before the Great Recession.”

The upward trend of kids dealing with hunger in suburban areas is demonstrating the need for people to realize that hunger isn’t just an issue that affects rural or urban areas, Pope said.

“Kids in the suburbs are dealing with hunger just like kids in the inner cities are, the face of hunger has changed,” she said. “This is not something that is happening over there, as this report proves. This is something that’s happening to their neighbors (and) this is something that’s happening in their schools.”

Arizona Fair Share Education Fund has created a pledge for state legislatures to sign that demonstrates their commitment to ending childhood hunger in Arizona, Pope said. As of Thursday, 52 representatives have signed it.

State Rep. Lela Alston of Phoenix signed the pledge and said ending childhood hunger is important for the future of Arizona.

“Working together we can solve this problem because we must,” she said. “If we need a strong workforce in Arizona, (then) we need strong kids, we need well-fed kids (and) we need kids who can learn.”