THE ISSUE: Child food insecurity here is among the highest in Florida.

OUR OPINION: We can fix this.

For many societal woes, it’s “out of sight, out of mind.” But have you ever seen a hungry child? That will stick with you for a long time.

It’s called food insecurity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses the term to describe lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.

Citrus County’s child food insecurity rate, at more than 25%, is among the highest in the state. Our county rate is worse than the rates of most surrounding counties, with the exception of Levy County, which is just as bad as Citrus. Some 80% of Citrus’s school-age children are eligible for free and reduced lunches. Florida has the 11th highest child food insecurity rate in the nation.

This. Just. Shouldn’t. Happen.

A country as wealthy as the U.S. should not have so many citizens living with daily food insecurity issues. It’s not just about hunger. It’s also about health and the long-term consequences for community economic and social well-being.

Lack of adequate nutrition can permanently alter children’s brains, which affects behavior. Studies show substantial links between food insecurity and poor child health and behavioral outcomes at every age. Behavioral health is a big concern in Citrus County schools now; how much of that is related to child food insecurity?

Feeding America (www.feedingamerica.org) notes that food insecurity kick-starts a downward cycle, beginning with a prevalence for disease and other negative health measures. Remember that Citrus County was 56th out of

67 counties in Florida for health outcomes on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2019 county health ranking report.

Food-insecure households often are those whose members are less well-educated and have poorly paying jobs. Lower income, limited resources and limited family management skills may lead to coping strategies that undermine health. Consuming cheaper, high-calorie/low-nutrition foods can worsen chronic diseases, result in inability to work, increase healthcare costs and intensify stresses in the household.

This is all tied to Citrus County’s big picture. Our county’s low taxes lead to lower cost of living, which attracts lower-income families to locate here. However, people cannot get ahead because there are limited numbers of well-paying jobs.

The county’s efforts toward economic development are not all about “attracting more tourists and clogging up our roads,” as has been charged, but instead about creating conditions that will improve community well-

being and promote a better quality of life, particularly for those who now are struggling.

Citrus County is fortunate to have a number of organizations and programs to feed adults and children during the school year as well as during breaks. The energetic volunteers at Citrus County Blessings focus on school-age children. Every Monday the Chronicle features a listing organizations with food pantries, free meals and food giveaways for adults.

It’s not enough, though. Acknowledge that food insecurity exists here, even if you personally don’t see it every day. Donate funds or volunteer your time with one of the organizations working to end hunger in Citrus County. Educate yourself about county economic development efforts, and support initiatives that will improve life for everyone. Most importantly, keep the conversation going.

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