Can Elmo and the Gang Make a Dent in Childhood Hunger?

The producers of ‘Sesame Street’ aim to help kids understand the heart-wrenching reality of food assistance.

The producers of ‘Sesame Street’ have introduced ‘Lily,’ a Muppet designed to help children struggling with food insecurity. (Photo: Sesame Workshop/Gil Vaknin).
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

While lawmakers continue to stall on the 2012 Farm Bill, and wrangle over just how much money to slash from the SNAP program (also known as food stamps), the harsh American reality is that one in seven of us rely on SNAP benefits. Even worse, studies have shown that nearly 49 percent of all SNAP participants are children.

However you feel about the Senate’s proposed $4.5 billion cuts to the program, or the House’s version to cut a whopping $16.5 billion from SNAP, the stats are sobering.

Which is why a recent New York Times story, “Food Stamps in Elmo’s World,” grabbed our attention. Or, you know, maybe it was the Muppets.

The questions were heart-wrenching.

MORE: Gleaning—The Answer to Our Hunger Crises?

“How would you explain to Big Bird what a food pantry is? How might one Muppet explain to another why a family can afford food for only the first 25 days of a 30-day month? How does a parent talk to a child who is taking smaller servings to make sure that a younger sibling has enough?” writes KJ Dell’Antonia.

“Those are all the questions that the people behind ‘Sesame Street’ have considered, and there’s something about that, more than all the statistics, more than anything else, that brings home the fact that there are children in the country who go to bed hungry. Those children are real, and there are enough of them, and enough parents struggling to feed them, that the ‘Sesame Street’ creators offer not only a special on the topic, but pamphlets and materials to help…” she writes.

That’s right, last fall the makers of Sesame Street introduced seven-year old Lily to America’s children in a primetime special called “Growing Hope Against Hunger.” It stemmed from the Healthy Habits for Life campaign that was started nine years ago to help at-risk communities. So far, Sesame Street has distributed over a million outreach kits, which include a DVD, a parent/caregiver guide, a children’s storybook, and recipe cards. (If you missed Lily’s debut, or would like access to the information contained in the kit, it’s available here.)

Cynthia Barron, senior project director at the Sesame Workshop, tells TakePart that when the program started, it was focused on better nutrition and things like fresh fruits and vegetables. “But how do you make those choices when you’re in a food desert?” she says.

“Here we talk about things like how you can make canned fruit healthier by rinsing it. Or how to take a chicken and stretch it into four meals. How to plan and freeze leftovers, like making a large pot of chili, and freezing half of it so when you come to the end of the month, there’s something available to eat,” says Barron.

Those are strong tips that many food insecure families can embrace. But it’s how to have the heart-to-heart conversations between parent and child that we think is especially noteworthy here. Hard lessons that maybe only a gentle Muppet can soften. 

(Also of note on this topic, Food and Environmental Reporting Network's latest slideshow shares the faces and stories of several surprising Americans who are grappling with hunger today.) 

Kids are going hungry in our own country. Can we do more to help them?

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