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col Children get special focus on Hunger Awareness Day

WASHINGTON -- The advent of summer is welcome news everywhere, but especially to youngsters who can tell you with precision how many days remain before school is out.

The only cloud on this bright horizon is that for millions of kids, when the school year ends, so does their regular access to lunch.

According to America's Second Harvest, the largest private feeding consortium in the country, during fiscal 2002 almost 16 million children ate free or reduced-price lunches through the federal school lunch program. Barely one of 10 -- about 1.8 million -- participated daily in the summer program.

That huge seasonal falloff is one reason why child hunger is a special focus of attention on this year's Hunger Awareness Day today.

It is but a piece of the overall national challenge of hunger. But the notion of children going to bed with empty stomachs in this land of plenty stirs the conscience of most people.

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The government, under successive administrations of both parties, has shown its concern for this problem. Food stamps, school lunches and a smaller school breakfast program and the WIC program (for Women, Infants and Children) all deliver important assistance.

But the federal government cannot meet the needs alone. State and local social service agencies -- many of them now facing severe budget cutbacks -- are struggling to maintain past commitments. Inevitably, a larger burden is falling on the nonprofit and private sectors -- notably the 50,000 faith-based and community-based charities for which America's Second Harvest serves as a national coordinating agency.

What educators and child psychologists know is that a child with an empty stomach is likely to show signs of stunted learning and emotional development -- to lack the energy and will to keep up with his or her classmates. It is easy for a youngster who is, in the bureaucratic phrase, "food-insecure'' to accept seeming society's verdict that he or she is not worth caring about.

The many Americans who volunteer at church or community food pantries know firsthand the devastation that chronic hunger can cause.

But the point that is being made by the business, civic and charitable organizations involved in Hunger Awareness Day is that the problem is getting worse.

America has problems that almost defy solution. This one does not. It just needs caring people and a caring government, working together.

David Broder writes for the Washington Post. His e-mail address is davidbroder@washpost.com.

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