A story of large hunger, in small bodies
They may not carry a Metrocard, hail a yellow taxi or rush amongst the ‘NewYorker minute’, but the children of NewYork are an important, overlooked part of the urban landscape and now, the hungriest.
The greatest victims of food injustice in the city, are paradoxically the voices least heard; 13% of New Yorks population are deemed food insecure, accounting for 8.9% of all working adults but 18% of all children . This makes the stories of children, one of the most important narratives of NewYorks food landscape and arguably the centre point of conversation in Food Liberation.
Mum, when’s lunch?
Second to LA, the children of New York City are some of the hungriest of any state where every night, a bedtime story is told to approximately 340,000 empty stomachs, 30% of whom can be found in the Bronx.
These patterns of hunger are not coincidental but weaved into place by the multiple socio-economic natures of families and neighbourhood geographies; empty lunchboxes are most often carried by the small of low-income neighbourhoods. What a child’s eats, is often dependent on what’s in mums’ shopping bag, which for many families is empty.
Economic hardship created by the COVID pandemic has only further squeezed the pockets of low-income families; 2020 seeing child Food insecurity jump by 49% citywide, leaving an extra child without a meal . As the pandemic has pushed children from the classroom to the bedroom, the loss of the school canteen, a lifeline for 860,000 of the cities’ children of low income families, has forced many into the lines of food banks and soup trucks.
Given barrier of agency children have to navigate and decide elements their everyday lives, the bodies of hungry children, are a strong material symbol of the systematic failures of New Yorks’ food landscape (Shillington and Murnaghan, 2016).
Empty plates carry injustice
At the mercy of their own environment, hunger felt by children is arguable a mirror image of the uneven racial and social politics which have shaped the geographies the city. Hunger specifically follows households with lower educational status and ethnic minorities; a risk 2x as high for children of Latinx and 1.4x higher for black families than white.
Without access to a nutritious meal, political ecologists highlight the heightened biologically vulnerability of children to the material implications that sit alongside hunger, seen beyond the plate (Gustafson, 2020). Children who grow up in financially vulnerable houses are at a significantly higher risk of malnutrition related diseases including anaemia, diabetes and obesity, later triggering cancers and cardiovascular complications.
For many, concentration in math class is also in competition with the growl of an empty stomach – with concentration and cognitive function hugely correlated with malnutrition, hunger leaves an imprint in the economic and social picture of a childs’ future. Leyvas’ diagram below illustrates how the complexity of urban living entangles neatly into the timeline of childhood which has the power to reshape futures, and perpetuate inequalities.
If New York wants to thrive, examining the empty plates and sweet filled pockets of the urban youth is essential as not passive, but poignant elements of the cities future.
Denney, J., Brewer, M. and Kimbro, R., 2020. Food insecurity in households with young children: A test of contextual congruence. Social Science & Medicine, 263, p.113275.
Feeding America, 2019. Child Food Insecurity. Map the Meal Gap. New York: Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
Gibson, A., berg, j. and Arber, N., 2019. NYC And NYS Hunger Report 2018. New York: Hunger Free America.
Gustafson, S., 2020. Children breathe their own air: Reflections on children’s geographies, the urban political ecology of air pollution, and ongoing participatory action research with undergraduates near an east London primary school. Area,.
NYCSchoolFood. 2010. Recipes For Health Improving School Food In New York City. [online] Available at: <https://www.gc.cuny.edu/CUNY_GC/media/CUNY-Graduate-Center/PDF/Centers/Center%20for%20Human%20Environments/NYCSchoolFood.pdf> [Accessed 24 November 2020].
Proffitt Leyva, R., Mengelkoch, S., Gassen, J., Ellis, B., Russell, E. and Hill, S., 2020. Low socioeconomic status and eating in the absence of hunger in children aged 3–14. Appetite, 154, p.104755.
Shillington, L. and Murnaghan, A., 2016. Urban Political Ecologies and Children’s Geographies: Queering Urban Ecologies of Childhood. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40(5), pp.1017-1035.