Hunger and homelessness in Idaho Falls

The holidays mean something different for each of us. For some, a time of great joy, for others, a time to get through and for those facing hunger and homelessness, a time of unmistakable contrast — those with so much and those with so little.

In the United States, Idaho included, 1 in every 5 children faces malnutrition because of poverty. Three out of 4 teachers in our country of vast plenty report their students don’t have enough to eat. The United Way’s valuable multistate study “Asset Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed” sheds light on the plight of one-fourth of families in Bonneville County: They earn more than the federal poverty level but not enough to cover monthly bills, food, clothing, car expenses, health care and daycare expenses. Add to this the families below the federal poverty level, and food insecurity affects more than one-third of families in Bonneville County.

Bonneville County statistics are staggering: In 2018, 6,326 children received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, comprising 51 percent of county SNAP recipients. In 2017, 20 percent of children 5 and younger lived below the federal poverty level. The majority of students at eight elementary schools — Dora Erickson, Bush, Hawthorne, Linden Park, Theresa Bunker, Falls Valley, Tiebreaker and Hillview — qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Fifty-five children are homeless on any given day.

By the time malnourished and homeless students reach school age, they are more likely to be behind academically than other students, less likely to graduate from high school — a key risk factor for adult homelessness perpetuating into the next generation — and more likely to have physical and mental health problems. Stresses in early childhood can be especially damaging. With Idaho at the bottom of all states for attendance in pre-K programs, could it be surprising that, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 62 percent of Idaho fourth graders aren’t proficient at reading, a key indicator for incarceration later in life?

Student homelessness has risen by 64 percent during the last decade in Idaho because of housing costs outpacing wage increases. Every time a student moves, four to six months of academic learning are lost. Looking to Washington state, the Priority Spokane collaboration between school districts and other support organizations found that helping families on the brink of losing their housing is vastly more economical — and humane — than stepping in after housing is lost. I can relate. While in upper elementary school after my dad, a WWII veteran, had a string of progressively less successful sales jobs, my family was almost evicted from our home, paid for in part by the GI bill. Only because my brother, a Marine officer, and sister who was waitressing bailed us out were we able to avoid the humiliation of being forced to move in the middle of the school year to God knows where.

The Bonneville County Democratic Party invites you to hear from key charity organizations addressing hunger and homelessness in Bonneville County — Habitat for Humanity, the Community Food Basket, FISH and Club Inc. — at noon on Saturday at the College of Eastern Idaho in the Healthcare Education Building. Learn how you can make a difference in our community.

Pat Tucker works for Fluor Idaho and is Bonneville County’s state committeewoman to the Idaho Democratic Party State Central Committee.