Published December 26. 2012 4:00AM
A disturbing report this week that more families in Connecticut - even those in well-to-do communities - are relying on federal programs to help feed their children underscores concerns that economic conditions continue to deteriorate in the Nutmeg State.
The findings by the Connecticut Health I-Team and published Monday in The Day offer no simple remedies, but must serve as a wakeup call about the urgency of boosting jobs in a state where unemployment has hovered too long around 9 percent.
While Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has made job creation a priority and has launched such innovative initiatives as his "First Five" program offering incentives to employers, the sad truth remains that far too many people are still out of work. And until employment improves, children will continue to go hungry.
This newspaper finds statistics cited in the report alarming:
• The number of public school students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch shot up from up from 26.4 percent during the 2004-05 school year to 34 percent during the 2010-11 school year, according to the Connecticut Department of Education.
• While the three largest cities account for a large percentage of those in need, hunger also is pervasive in smaller cities and suburban communities, including New London, where a staggering 85.1 percent of the student body is eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Even East Lyme and Colchester, considered among the more prosperous towns in the region, eligibility has more than doubled.
According to End Hunger Connecticut!, a Hartford-based nonprofit, Connecticut ranks last nationwide (51st including the District of Columbia) when it comes to taking part in a federally funded breakfast program.
There are two ways to assess this statistic. Not surprisingly, agencies responsible for overseeing such government programs warn that nonparticipating school districts not only are missing out on millions in federal funds - about $2.1 million in Hartford and $1.7 million in Waterbury, for example - but also are putting youngsters at risk.
Another, more conservative view would be a literal application of the adage, "There's no such thing as a free lunch" (or, in this case, breakfast).
This newspaper finds it hard to accept that more than eight in 10 New London schoolchildren are really going hungry - but at the same time we agree that persistently high unemployment has hit families with children particularly hard.
The truth, we suspect, lies in-between.
"Childhood hunger is impacting school districts across the board in urban, rural, even wealthy communities," Therese Dandeneau, an education consultant with the Connecticut Department of Education's school nutrition programs, told Magaly Olivero, the Connecticut Health I-Team reporter who wrote the story.
There's no disputing the fact that hunger hurts academic performance.
"People are beginning to see nutrition as a piece of the education puzzle," said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!, which last year launched the "Connecticut No Kid Hungry" campaign with Gov. Malloy's office and Share Our Strength, a national organization fighting childhood hunger.
Nolan and others have cited research showing the link between eating breakfast and improved standardized testing scores. According to the Health I-Team report, Connecticut schools that provide meals report improved academic success, classroom participation and daily attendance along with decreased tardiness and bad behavior.
Until employment picks up, these problems will persist.
While these findings may be troubling, this newspaper can't overlook some cheerier scholastic topics unrelated to the hunger report, suggesting all is not bad in our region's high schools.
We point to the assortment of student athletes now being singled out as The Day's all-area players of the year. Have you ever seen a more appealing, inspiring collection of young men and women?
In addition, during the holidays The Day has been writing up-to-date profiles about student leaders who graduated 10 years ago. We find their stories refreshing antidotes to the epidemic of bad news involving schools these days.
We're sure you'll agree: There's hope.