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Scarlett Johansson Feeds Hungry Children

2009 WebMD Health Hero Scarlett Johansson is on a mission to feed hungry kids for a very personal reason. She used to be one of them.

Hidden Epidemic: Childhood Hunger

Kids in such families may not look like the familiar image of a starving child, says Deborah Frank, MD, the director of Boston Medical Center's Grow Clinic for Children. But the damage done by regularly missing meals takes its toll on the inside long before it shows on the outside. "In young children especially, the first thing that goes when you're not getting enough to eat is 'discretionary activity,'" Frank explains.

"You can do what you need to survive, but you have no focus or energy left over. It's only when kids are adequately fed, rested, and comfortable that they're learning. So they missed a few meals, what's the big deal? It's a big deal if you want the child to learn something."

Malnutrition in children is surprisingly common in this country. "More than 12 million kids live in households where there's not enough money to buy food," says Joel Berg, head of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America? "They're not North Korea or Somalia kind of hungry, but these kids are often going without food." And that was before the full impact of the economic downturn hit. Nationwide, nearly 20 million children receive free or subsidized meals through the National School Lunch Program -- which helps, but it's not enough, says Berg.

If you're a parent, you've probably noticed your child gets cranky and difficult to manage, and has trouble concentrating, without a good breakfast or a snack when it's needed. Now imagine what would happen if your child didn't get enough to eat every day. When children regularly go hungry, it can have a devastating impact on their future. Even low levels of malnutrition at critical periods of growth can harm brain development and make it harder for children to concentrate and do well in school.

According to Berg, undernourished kids are more likely to:

Lag in school. They are more likely to score lower on tests and have to repeat a grade.

Have behavioral problems. Undernourished kids tend to have conduct disorders and mental illness.

Battle suicidal thoughts. Kids who don't get enough to eat are more likely to become suicidal teens.

Get sick. They have higher rates of illnesses such as ear infections and iron deficiency and are more likely to be hospitalized. That's because a child who's not getting enough to eat gets caught in something called the "infection-malnutrition cycle." When children get the flu or an infection, they generally lose weight. "Fever increases their metabolic rate, they feel horrible, and they lose calories with vomiting and diarrhea," says Deborah Frank, MD, of the Boston Medical Center.

"In a privileged household, the child gets over the acute illness, is really hungry, gets seconds and thirds and restores their nutritional status. When food supplies are marginal to begin with, there's no 'extra' to help the child recover. There may be nothing at all, depending on what day of the week it is. So the child stays undernourished, it impairs their immune function, and they're more likely to catch the next infection and down the tubes they go." Frank predicts that many such kids will be the ones showing up in emergency rooms with the most severe cases of H1N1 flu this fall and winter.

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