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1 in 7 Utah kids 5 and under goes hungry, report says

At that age, lack of nutrition can cause irreversible damage

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One in seven Utah children ages 5 and under — about 39,000 total — doesn't know where his next meal is coming from and is consistently unable to get food that is good for him, the first-ever state-by-state analysis of childhood hunger shows.

The report, "Child Food Insecurity in the United States," doesn't take into account current economic troubles that are likely adding more nutritional deficits. It focuses on 2005 to 2007, the most recent two-year period that complete data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture used in the study was available.

Even though the report may suffer from built-in lag time, having that many young children not getting the nutrition they need to get life off to a good start is alarming, said Jim Pugh, executive director of Utah Food Bank Services, the statewide network of emergency food pantries.

"The results of this study are startling, especially given that children are so vulnerable and that this situation is preventable," Pugh said. "Children need proper nutrition in order to grow and develop into healthy adults, and this study sadly shows that not every child is receiving this basic necessity."

The situation appears to be improving, at least since 2003 and 2005, when an assessment shows that about 140,000 children ages 18 and under were living on the brink of hunger. The new report pegs the total at 132,000 children in that situation.

The high rate of hunger among children ages 5 and under rate is particularly troubling because the most critical growth period for the brain occurs then.

"Child hunger, particularly at that age, causes physical and mental impairment that may never be reversed," said John Cook, co-author of the report and a Boston University School of Medicine researcher.

Child hunger also creates tremendous costs to the future economy, Cook said. "There is no better investment in a prosperous future than investing in ending childhood hunger."

Utah is in the middle of the pack for nationwide rates of hungry children under age 5. The three states with the highest rates are Louisiana, North Carolina and Ohio, each with about 24 percent. In the west, Idaho has the highest rate, with 20.2 percent food-insecure kids, the 10th-highest rate nationally.

The states with the highest rates of hungry children under the age of 18 are Texas, Mississippi and the District of Columbia, at about 22 percent. Arizona has the fifth-highest rate in the country, with 20.2 percent of kids under 18 there regularly going without or not eating well.

The USDA has collected data on domestic food insecurity since 1995. The latest study was sponsored by the ConAgra Foods Foundation as part of its "Nourish Today, Flourish Tomorrow" program on child hunger and nutritional education. ConAgra Foods is a major donor to Feeding America, whose network of food banks and food-rescue organizations serves 25 million Americans every year.

E-MAIL: jthalman@desnews.com