Statement of Dr. Aaron Shirley before the House Select Committee on Hunger. Greenwood, Mississippi June 25, 1984

By Aaron Shirley

Vol. 6, No. 6, 1984, p. 12

My name is Aaron Shirley. I am a practicing pediatrician and the project director of the Jackson Hinds Comprehensive Health Center in Jackson, Mississippi. I also serve as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Medical and Surgical Association, an affiliate of the National Medical Association. I appreciate this opportunity to come before you to share my views on the problems of hunger and malnutrition in our nation. I am sure you are familiar with the Field Foundations Survey of Hunger in the United States in 1967 with a follow-up study ten years later. I had the opportunity to participate in these surveys and was also part of a team which visited this area in April and May of this year. My first hand experience with nutritional problems of the poor is not limited to the few weeks spent during these studies however. Mine is an everyday experience as we provide a wide range of health and health related services to more than 26,000 poor in the City of Jackson and surrounding rural Hinds County, including WIC certification and nutritional counseling to five thousand poor pregnant women, infant and children.

In 1967 when we examined children in this very town and outlying rural communities we saw many children on the verge of actual starvation. They were stunted in their growth and development, dull and with very little vigor as you would expect of three, four and five year old children. Ten years later, and again in April and May of this year we found similar conditions but not to the extent to which they existed in 1967. It cannot be denied that the overriding factor contributing to the improvements which we did see has been due to the combined benefits of the various food assistance programs put into place during the past decade. This is not to say or to imply that poverty related hunger and malnutrition no longer exist. It does exist. It is still wide spread among the poor of our state, with children and the elderly being particularly affected.

With the absolute number of individuals in poverty growing, the problems are sure to deterioriate, and without appropriate intervention we may soon find ourselves back to the conditions of 1967 and the numbers adversely affected in this state would be high. For instance, there are 425,000 children participating in the school lunch program. Of these, 290,000 or sixty-eight percent receive the meals free or at reduced price, meaning they are from families in poverty. When we consider that poor children obtain one third or one half of their daily nutrients from school lunch we can readily see the potential negative impact on those who may no longer be able to afford these meals due to cut backs and changes in eligibility requirements.

Some might argue that the difference will be made up at home. This is just not the case. From our own first hand experience we find that seventy percent of the five thousand individuals, mostly children, which we certify annually for the WIC Program have home dietary histories deficient in vitamins A and C. Forty-five percent are deficient in iron and thirty percent deficient in protein. In those children three to five years of age, fifteen percent are deficient in calcium. And as we interviewed family after family recently and looked in their refrigerators and on their pantry shelves towards month's end we could easily determined the reason, not enough food!

Over the past months there appears to have developed a controversy over this issue of hunger and malnutrition in our country. It is my understanding that even your being here trying to sift out the facts has provoked some degree of resentment and suspicion on the part of local officials. I can tell you over the years this has been a predictable reaction of those who have consistently ignored the problems of poor people and who have fought hard to retain a political and economic system which perpetuates poverty and all that living without an adequate income implies; poor housing, malnutrition, ill health and shortened life span. You will see some of this for yourself as you visit families in this area: I hope that you will keep in mind as you observe these families that the hunger that they speak of is not the occasional discomfort that you might experience on a busy day in which you might miss lunch or some other meal. The hunger which you see here is ongoing and leads to chronic malnutrition, and the consequences of this type of malnutrition takes it's toll.

Gentlemen, in closing, I ask that you give serious consideration to immediately increasing the amount of funds for the various nutrition support programs--all of them; food stamps, WIC, school breakfast and school lunch. I say increase them all because it is obvious to many of us that one meal, or even a portion of a meal can make the difference between a child who is healthy, happy and capable of learning and developing into a productive citizen or one who is hungry and malnourished, apathetic and vulnerable to sickness and disease and possibly a shortened life span.