Children of the Soup Kitchen

When I walked into the soup kitchen, my attention was caught by the kids. Little kids – infants in car seats, toddlers leaning against their moms, grade school kids staring at their trays. It breaks my heart. These kids have done nothing wrong, yet their start is already ten steps behind so many. They are the innocents caught in the trap of poverty. These are the kids who will perpetuate the cycle of poverty unless something changes.

Too often, kids echo what they see and hear. A parent struggling to survive, looking to find a warm place for her family to sleep and scrounging for food to fill their bellies often lacks the time and energy to help that child learn. So not only is the child cold and hungry, that child is also failing to get the basics. Mom doesn’t teach her the abcs. Dad doesn’t work on colors and shapes with him. When do they catch up? How do they catch up?

Poverty is a horrible trap. A self-perpetuating cycle that can be broken only through education and major change. According to studies, 13 million American children, 18% our children are being raised in families earning less than the federal poverty level ($21,200 per year). The children trapped in this cycle did not choose to be born into poverty. Hell, given their druthers, they’d be children of rich parents. But we don’t get to make that choice, and our initial beginnings are as much a factor of randomness as anything else.

A child who spends his or her early years dining in a soup kitchen has a dramatically different worldview than a child who never has to worry about getting fed. The safety, comfort and attention levels are very different.

Soup kitchens can only provide so much – a hot meal, another meal of peanut butter and jelly or some other shelf stable food to take with. Perhaps there is access to social workers and other tools that may help move a person forward. But it doesn’t give a small child an even playing field with children who live in relatively stable homes with relatively stable families. The socialization of these poor children is dramatically different than those in more affluent families. Growing up in a car or a shelter is not on par with growing up in a home and going for playdates at the neighbors.

As our economy spirals downward, I wonder how many more children will be eating in the soup kitchen. How many young kids will find nourishment at the generosity of strangers? The long terms effects are staggering. The levels of impoverished children has grown steadily over the last seven years. That places a burden on the schools they attend to provide remedial and basic classes to help bring them up to speed; higher numbers of kids needing free lunch. Health care costs for a malnourished child or child raised on cheap fast food soar. Maybe they’ll catch up. More likely not. And then what?

Many of us take extra time and money to help out the poor at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We bring our sacks of toys and canned goods to local shelters and offer our time. That is a wonderful thing. But is it enough?

The gaps between rich children and poor children exist. How do we change them? How do we create a society where every child has a chance? I have no answers, only questions. I do believe that we can find ways to defeat poverty and the effect it has on children, but only by actually paying attention (and money) to work on the issue. Poverty is usually hidden from view, in ghettos and barrios far out of view from the rich. It needs to be brought to the forefront and discussed openly and loudly.

BAH – Bloggers Against Hunger is one way to do that. It’s not too late to get involved. BAH blogs can be posted through Friday, and on Monday, I will post a complete list of all those who got involved. Write, read, comment. Your voice could be the answer.  Please link your Hunger Related blog here or send me a message letting me know where to find it.

By:  Lauren J. Walter  November 12, 2008