Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Hunger Artists

No matter what the calendar says, summer is here, and with it arrives a whole host of vexations—plagues of mosquitoes, ticks and fleas, brain-frying and lawn-toasting mid-afternoon heat, astronomical electric bills, the start of another hurricane season. And oh yeah: this is usually about the time we totally lose interest in the Astros, unless they put together eight or nine straight before the break. Even then, we might not pay attention again until they’re a lock for the playoffs.

Then there’s another small annoyance, one of which you may only be faintly aware but which nonetheless arrives each year roundabout this time: a news story or editorial or op-ed piece suggesting that there are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of HUNGRY CHILDREN in Houston, apparently malnourished to the brink of starvation. Summer appears to be a particularly acute time for "hunger," according to the monolithic social services-media infrastructure, because so many kids aren’t going over to their neighborhood schools to grab the two free meals the government makes available each weekday. You read it and maybe start to feel bad, then you walk or ride down almost any street in town and never see a kid who looks anywhere near emaciated; in fact, about every third kid (rough estimate) you run across looks to be ranging somewhere between grossly and morbidly obese (big, big problemo amongst your Hispanic—’scuse me, Latino—youth [check it out]). You yell at the kid to go run some laps or do some push-ups—men push-ups—but of course he can’t hear you ‘cause he’s zoned in on his MP3 player. Come to think of it, you never really hear about any actual “hungry” or “malnourished” child, with a real face and real name, unless he or she is the victim of severe parental abuse.

And you go hmm ...

Most of the media hand-wringings in Houston over the “hungry child” emanate, in some fashion, from an outfit with the ominous-sounding name Children at Risk, whose stock-in-trade appears to be ensuring that Houston is thought of—by Houstonians and outsiders alike—as a veritable hellhole for God’s innocents. Its solution to almost any “problem” it supposedly uncovers or spotlights is more, more, more expenditures of taxpayer funds. We don’t believe Children at Risk has ever cited “bad parenting” as at least an itsy-bitsy reason why some children may be “at risk” (although thousands and thousands and thousands of resilient Houston children actually survive that particular risk, daily).

Children at Risk is a non-profit think tank and advocacy group that’s been around since 1989 and has some fairly influential child health-and-welfare types on its board (its Web site also lists a couple of fairly influential media outlets as “collaborators”—check it out!). What we know about Children at Risk we’ve cobbled together from a few things we’ve heard over the years—nothing bad—and from the organization’s Web site. We don’t believe we’ve ever heard or seen any sort of an explanation in the local media of what Children at Risk is about and who funds it, beyond a description of the outfit as a “non-profit that focuses on children’s issues” or something equally as vague and meaningless. And this is the identifier that usually accompanies some extravagant claim or another that Children at Risk is making regarding the quality of the schools or all those “hungry children.” We figure the media take note of the name—Children at Risk—and automatically toss out their critical and evaluative faculties (which are not in large supply to begin with) and go with the flow. After all, how can you even question something that’s supposedly good for the children? Somebody might call you a Nazi or something, make you feel bad for being an actual journalist instead of a publicist masquerading as a journalist.

The latest eyebrow-raising epistle from Children at Risk appeared on the opinion page of Sunday’s Houston Chronicle in a somewhat disjointed piece authored by Robert Sanborn, the organization’s president and CEO, and headlined “Feed the hungry children right in our midst; Up to half of young here don’t get enough to eat.” Sanborn’s commentary does not reflect the second assertion of the headline—pretty much par for the course these days at the city’s leading daily newspaper—because nowhere in it does he actually make that statement. What he does say is this:
Contrary to popular belief and maybe a surprise to those of us wearing social blinders, poverty and hunger are far-reaching and widespread problems within the United States. This is especially true in the greater Houston area. Approximately 48 percent of Harris County children live in families with an income of $22,050 or less for a family of four. What is even more difficult to fathom is that here in Houston we are leaving dollars on the table by not fully taking advantage of federal money available to us to feed our hungry children. I, for one, want to see my tax dollars being fully utilized, especially if they were approved to help hungry children.
So it appears that Sanborn isn't connecting the dots on the imaginary grid by actually claiming that all these children in $22,050 households “don’t get enough to eat” or are “hungry.” Which is a good thing, because that would be patently, blatantly untrue (if difficult to quantify). What he is doing is unclear, except for reminding readers (and donors) that Children at Risk is on the case. Most of the rest of Sanborn’s piece is given over to recounting, in numbing detail, all the public and private resources devoted to providing free grub to Houston youngsters, except that they’re not enough and we need to get more, more, more kids to participate.

We’ll let you read the rest yourself, if you’re so inclined. In the meantime, we know you’re busy--possibly hungry for a salty snack--so we won’t draw down much more of your valuable but limited attention bandwidth. But before we go we’d like to make a couple of more points, in appropriately disjointed fashion, before somebody calls us a Nazi (but we voted for Obama, man!):

1. THERE ARE HUNGRY CHILDREN IN HOUSTON. This is a fact of which we are aware. But there aren't anywhere near the number the hunger artists would have you believe, and more often than not this is a temporary (but not good, of course) situation caused by poor parenting, or, more likely, by parental drug abuse or mental illness (the second cause growing from the first). And some parents just can’t get off their behinds or arrange to get their kids up to the school to get their free breakfasts and lunches in the summer—these meals usually provide ample daily caloric intake, although they generally are neither “tasty” nor “nutritious”—and instead turn the kids loose with giant sodas and a big bag of X-treme HOT CHIPS, the crap that just contributes to the further addling of young addled minds. (We’ll refrain from going off on the parents who drive the new Expeditions and F-250s to drop their kids off at school to procure their government-subsidized victuals—happens more than you’d think, mi amigo.) We definitely don’t believe the sins of the parents should fall on the children, especially the young ones, but we wonder what exactly Children at Risk proposes: Perhaps that each “at risk” child be assigned his or her own personal social worker to chauffeur them to and from school during the summertime so he or she can avail himself or herself of the free meals? HISD is offering the free food at 200 locations—seems like one might even be with in walking distance for most children. And lots of 'em could stand the exercise.

2. SINCE WHEN DID SOCIETY BEGIN DEFINING DOWN “HUNGER” AS “MISSING BREAKFAST”? Yes, we know, it’s best to eat a balanced breakfast, especially for young children, for all the reasons that Sanborn lists in his commentary, but does going without breakfast actually equate to “going hungry,” or, as Sanborn puts it in cutting-edge social-service jargon, “food insecurity?” Isn’t such a loose construction a real affront to people who fight against actual, documented “hunger” in Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America? Who’s to say that children who are eligible but aren’t partaking of the government-funded breakfast aren’t being fed? Maybe—and this is had to fathom, we know—their parents are feeding them (even hot chips-and-soda is something, although not as good for firing up the brain cells as the black coffee-and-a-cigarette breakfasts on which we subsisted for years). Diligent, attentive parents in a family of four making $22,050 annually can provide for their or her or his kids and do fulfill the first responsibility of parenting, which is to make sure their kids are fed and secure (and pass the TAKS!). And so:

3. HUNGER AMONG CHILDREN IS NOT “WIDESPREAD” IN HOUSTON. It’s just not, period. And when you cry wolf for so long, people tend to ignore or discount what you say and will continue to do so if you ever stumble across a real "problem."

Go ahead and call us a Nazi, if you wish, but now we must reattach our blinders and rest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess once you call your organization "Children at Risk" you're sorta obligated to come up with endless stories of "Childern at Risk". Kinda reminds me of the the "City under Siege" show that 39 or some other local UHF news outlet had a few years back. My God, I thought I was living in a war zone or Washington DC or something.