Published on Feb 22, 2021

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN WHYTE: Hi, everyone. I'm Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD. And you're watching Coronavirus in Context. Today, I want to talk about hunger, especially hunger in kids. It was a problem before the COVID pandemic, and now it's gotten worse. So how do we fix this problem?

So to provide some insights, I've asked two experts. The first is Lisa Davis. She's the senior vice president of No Kid Hungry. And I've also asked SE Cupp, CNN host and political commentator. Ladies, thanks for joining me.

SE CUPP: [INAUDIBLE]

LISA DAVIS: Thanks for having me on.

JOHN WHYTE: Lisa, let's start off with what's the state of hunger among kids in the United States.

LISA DAVIS: Thank you for asking that, John. As soon as COVID really started hitting our nation in March, we saw a dramatic and unprecedented increase in the number of kids facing hunger. And right now, estimates are that 17 million kids across the United States are struggling with hunger. To put that in context, before COVID hit, numbers were the lowest that they had been since 1998, less than 11 million kids. And literally 10 years of progress were completely erased in just a matter of weeks.

JOHN WHYTE: How are kids getting fed? Many of them relied upon school, correct, for their breakfast, for their lunch, even some of them for, essentially, what would be an early dinner? You can't do all of that by having people pick it up at the schools, and deliveries are limited. How does that even work now?

LISA DAVIS: I have to say that our school nutrition professionals, the lunch ladies, have been real heroes throughout this pandemic. Many schools across the country had to literally stand up a whole new school meal program over a weekend. And letting families come and pick up meals to go, they're able, in many cases, to provide a week's worth of meals to kids. The families only have to make the trip once.

But even then, a lot of families don't have transportation, or they have medically vulnerable family members in the home so they don't want to take public transportation and get out. And that's why it's really important that our communities have access to resources and tools to be able to feed kids in all kinds of different ways, whether that's getting resources to their families to expand their purchasing power, providing flexibilities to schools and community organizations so they can be creative and implement new models like delivered meals, and making sure that food banks, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs also have resources so that they can be an additional place for families to get meals.

JOHN WHYTE: And SE, it's not just about the short-term impact, right, in terms of kids are hungry during the week, but we also need to be aware of the potential long-term consequences of hunger in youth.

SE CUPP: Yeah. And what I have found the most impactful thing to think about, both as a mom who's interested in this and as an advocate, is to not think about child hunger as just kids being hungry, but also the anxiety that comes along with food insecurity, the stress of not knowing where your next meal is coming from, if you'll go to bed hungry that night. Think about the anxiety epidemic hitting this country right now. We all deal with it. Think about how much anxiety impacts you as an adult, and impacts every aspect of your life.

And then think of a five-year-old or a 10-year-old taking on that same kind of anxiety, but without the tools to process it correctly, to compartmentalize it if necessary, to move through it, to figure it out. And then imagine putting that very anxious child in a classroom and asking them to learn and deal with the social pressures of school and all the other things that kids deal with. It's the anxiety and stress and stigma that comes with being hungry and food insecurity that I think made the issue a lot more urgent and human for me. And so I think when we talk about this issue, it's important to include that mental health aspect, which will affect our kids forever, for as long as this is sort of undealt with.

JOHN WHYTE: And it's also the stress on the parents, as well, struggling as to how they're going to feed their kids. And Lisa, we know about the impact, as SE talked about, on their stress and anxiety as kids, but it's also about their physical growth, their mental health, their cognitive abilities, correct? If they're not eating enough food, if they're not consuming the right quality of food, that's a real concern that we need to be concerned about years from now. Isn't that right?

LISA DAVIS: You're exactly right, John. There is a really robust body of evidence, and growing every day, that shows that when kids miss meals, it affects their physical health now, but also in the future. It affects their mental health, their emotional health. It affects how they do in school. They're less likely to graduate. And some studies show it impacts their lifetime earnings. And I think what keeps me up at night as a mom is knowing that, if we don't take action now and address this child hunger crisis, we run the risk, really, of a lost generation of kids.

JOHN WHYTE: I want to ask you both, why did you get involved in this cause, in this issue?

LISA DAVIS: I think for two reasons. One, I'm a mom. My husband and I have four kids, and I can't imagine not being able to feed them or having to watch them go hungry. The second reason is, when I was a kid, my parents went through a couple of years of hard times after they divorced, and so I was the kid that got the free school lunch. My family got SNAP benefits. Back then, they were different colored coupons.

It was very obvious that you were on SNAP. And I remember my mom taking us to the grocery store at 10 or 11 o'clock at night when there would be fewer people there because she was so embarrassed to need help. And so it was really important to me to work on this issue to make sure that every child in America has the same opportunities that my kids do, and that other moms don't have to worry and stay up late at night wondering how they're going to stretch a couple of boxes of spaghetti to feed their kids over the whole week.

JOHN WHYTE: And then SE, why did you get involved? Why lend your voice to this cause versus some others?

SE CUPP: Well, I had covered issues like poverty and hunger in my capacity as a journalist for years. And then I became a mom, and a number of issues became personal for me. And even though I'm lucky, my kid is not hungry, my kid will never be food-insecure, knock on wood, we're very lucky, and it's why we spend a lot of time feeding other families in need and talking about that, but when I became a mom, everything that affected kids I saw through the eyes of my own.

And I was at work one day, and I went into the green room to get ready for a hit, and there's Jeff Bridges. And oh, well, hello, Jeff Bridges, and I'm SE, and he said, I know, and we chatted for a bit. And then he would not let me leave the room without hearing about No Kid Hungry and child hunger. And he made it such a personal, human issue for me, I thought, how is this not solved? Look around. We are one of the wealthiest nations, and we're full of compassion. We're a compassionate people.

How is this possible? And so I went home changed. Shook, really. And I said, I want to get involved. And I learned a lot more about child hunger and sort of the arms that it reaches, and the ways that I hadn't thought about child hunger before in terms of policy and practice. And so it became a mission for me to do what I could, which is minimal when you think about how much we all could be doing to solve what is, as Lisa points out, all of our problems. This is about all of us, and potentially a lost generation.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, let's talk to our listeners. You have their attention. What should we be doing? What can I do as an individual sitting in the DMV?

LISA DAVIS: I think there are a number of things folks can do, right? The first thing that we need to do is raise awareness and create urgency and reduce that stigma. And I think that's one of the reasons we are so excited that SE has made this such an important issue, because by reaching viewers and helping them understand that, yes, this is a problem in America, that inspires people to take action. People can donate to local organizations that help feed kids, to national organizations.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

JOHN WHYTE: --organizations? Because we shouldn't assume that people automatically know which ones they are. So obviously, there's No Kid Hungry. What--

LISA DAVIS: Right.

JOHN WHYTE: [INAUDIBLE] organizations?

LISA DAVIS: Every community has a food bank or a food pantry. That's a good place to start. YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs also help feed kids. Obviously, my organization, No Kid Hungry, helps work with organizations across the country. We've been really fortunate since March, when schools started closing, to grant $65 million to almost 2,000 organizations across the country, which has led to 850 million meals being served.

So obviously the problem is very large, but we have a really caring country, and a lot of parents who can't imagine kids in this country going hungry. So we can solve this problem. And then talk to your elected officials. Tell them that this issue needs to be at the top of the agenda. Like, it has to be addressed.

JOHN WHYTE: So you've talked about legislators being advocates for this. Should there be legislation? SE, you talk a lot on politics.

SE CUPP: Yeah.

JOHN WHYTE: You know the federal government, state government very well. What should we be doing in terms of legislative activity?

SE CUPP: Well, I think we do need federal legislation. And we're getting some. And that's the good news. But as much time as we spend thinking about national news, I think it's really important, in the case of child hunger, to think about your local community and local issues. And there are things that affect child hunger that you might not connect. School consolidation, for example, in rural areas.

When school districts consolidate and shrink, that often makes it harder for someone to get to school. They might miss breakfast because their drive to school is now an hour, where it used to be 10 minutes. Those kinds of things are within your own community. And paying attention to what's going on at your local school board, for example, might be a lot more impactful than paying attention to the national politics.

The opioid crisis is part of the child hunger story. More and more folks impacted by opioid addiction, kids are being taken care of by their grandparents, who might not drive to school, who might not be able to drive as far as a kid needs, who might not be able to afford more food than they had budgeted before they took on their kid's kids. These are all things that are part of a very complicated American problem. And raising awareness and educating ourselves on all the moving parts I think is one of the most important first steps we should take.

JOHN WHYTE: Lisa, what does the post-COVID world look like for child hunger?

LISA DAVIS: I think we know that the economic impacts of this crisis will last a lot longer than the health impacts. And so as we start moving from crisis to rebuilding and recovery, we need to make sure that people are aware not only of the extent of the child hunger crisis, but what some of the solutions are. And so recognizing the profound impacts hunger has on a child's ability to learn and to grow up healthy and strong, we need to make sure that schools are implementing the best models, making breakfast part of the school day so that, as SE mentioned, if the bus is late or you don't get there, you're not missing out on a meal that your parents couldn't provide at home. And making sure that other programs are strong, programs that help provide families resources to buy food at home, as well as those school meals.

I think we have the programs in the United States to end child hunger. What we really have been missing is kind of the national awareness and the political will. And I think if there is anything good to come out of COVID, it is that a light has been shown on child hunger. And this is the moment to create that political will.

JOHN WHYTE: To be fair at least, I'm going to push back a little. Do people really not know child hunger exists, or is it that they don't think it exists in their community? Because we all know that. Is it that there's other lack of will, or there's a lack of resources? SE's in Washington. There's a fight over resources all the time. How do we manage this in a way that we can get rid of child hunger in a decade? Is that possible?

LISA DAVIS: I think it is possible. And it is a hidden problem.

JOHN WHYTE: Hm. That's why I wanted--

LISA DAVIS: There is a lot of shame and stigma in not being able to feed your kids. And unlike in some parts of the world, where it's very obvious when kids are going hungry, the effects are very visible, in the US, that isn't the case. And so I think, for many people, it's easy to believe that it can't really happen here. And it can, and it does. And it was a problem, as you point out, John, before COVID hit, and it's a problem that has just increased exponentially. But it is a problem that is imminently solvable.

JOHN WHYTE: SE, is there the political will? Let's be honest, there's a lot of partisanship, a lot of fighting. Hard to move any legislation, let's be honest. What's your prediction?

SE CUPP: Well, I don't want to be off-color here, but nothing pisses me off more than politicizing kids. And we politicize everything in this country, and increasingly so, but we cannot afford to politicize this issue. This isn't about right and left, this isn't Republican, Democrat. This has nothing, nothing to do with politics, and has everything to do with our most vulnerable and innocent populations, our kiddos. And so if there's any issue that we can come together over, it should be feeding our kids.

JOHN WHYTE: Where's the loggerjam, do you think?

SE CUPP: Well, again, I mean, everything right now has become political. Science is political. Wearing masks is political. I mean, really nothing's off the table. It's a pretty shameful time to be trying to solve problems in this country, even dire ones like COVID, and ones that should not be touched by politics, like child hunger.

We can have arguments over how money is spent over the best ways to solve this problem, both locally and federally. I think those are good conversations to have. But we shouldn't have them for the sake of politics, because our kids are at stake here, and a generation of hungry kids who have been underdeveloped, undereducated, underserviced, and whose mental health is on the line. This is all of us. This is every American. Every single person has a responsibility here.

JOHN WHYTE: And as you point out, we have to protect and do more for the most vulnerable of our population. Lisa, remind people where they can go to find out more about your organization.

LISA DAVIS: You can go online to www.nokidhungry.org. And if you know someone that is struggling with hunger, or you yourself are struggling with hunger, you can text food or comida to 877877. And that will show you-- or that will give you information on where there are sites that you can go to get food in your community. In addition to our texting food locator, we also have a searchable map online, where you can look to see where there are locations you and your family can go to get food.

JOHN WHYTE: Do you enter your zip code or type in your address?

LISA DAVIS: You can click on the state, and it will pull things up. I believe you can also enter in your zip code.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, I want to thank you both for joining me today for raising awareness of this very important issue.

SE CUPP: Thanks for talking about it, John.

LISA DAVIS: Yeah, thank you, John.

JOHN WHYTE: And I want to thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context. If you have questions, drop us a line. You can send them to [email protected], as well as post them on our social properties, on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. Thanks for watching.