Poor Kids

"Poor Kids" will be shown at the Keene Public Library.

A local network that aims to mitigate childhood hunger will hold a film screening and community conversation on the topic this evening.

Monadnock Understands Childhood Hunger, a coalition of area organizations and volunteers, will screen the Frontline documentary ”Poor Kids” at the Keene Public Library and then hold a panel discussion with three local experts. The free event, cosponsored by the library at 60 Winter St., is scheduled from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

The 2012 PBS documentary follows the lives of three young girls who live in poverty, exploring what it means to grow up poor.

The screening coincides with a time many kids in families of low income might find particularly difficult, said Sarah Harpster of The Community Kitchen in Keene, who will moderate tonight’s panel.

In a few short weeks, students across the region will begin their summer vacation. But for children under the poverty line, school breaks can be tinged with worry, as a major source of food — free and reduced-price school lunches — stops for summer, Harpster said.

For many children in poverty, that means fewer meals, she said, noting that the impact of chronic hunger — stunted growth and poorer performance in school, to name a couple — can follow a child well into adulthood.

Founded two years ago, Monadnock Understands Childhood Hunger includes organizations such as Keene Housing, the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and Savings Bank of Walpole. The network holds events to raise awareness on the nature of hunger in the region and also supplies local children whose families are of low income with food boxes for school breaks.

In April, the coalition served 110 students in Wheelock and Franklin elementary schools in Keene, as well as in the Marlborough, Walpole and Winchester elementary schools, according to Joshua Houle, coordinator of the school vacation food boxes program.

Harpster, The Community Kitchen’s gleaning and outreach coordinator, said many children in poverty may look nourished, but go to bed hungry a few times a week.

“We see people who don’t get nutritious food, because it’s always the stuff that’s more affordable is not as nutritious ... so they are not healthy, but they don’t look like they’re starving,” she said. “... So we’re not talking about never getting food. We’re talking about skipped meals, especially in the summertime.”

Three Keene-based experts will discuss these and other topics as part of tonight’s panel: Penny Vaine, manager of the Healthy Starts Program at Home Healthcare, Hospice and Community Services; Melissa Mucha, school adjustment counselor at Franklin School, and Cheshire Medical Center pediatrician Dr. Trish Campbell.

There’s evidence that food insecurity and hunger is prevalent in Cheshire County.

According to Phoebe Bray, executive director of The Community Kitchen, the organization provided 369,810 meals to people in Cheshire County through its food pantry last year. Almost a quarter of those pantry clients were children, she added.

Vaine, whose program works with families on everything from nutrition to mental health support, said housing, food and transportation needs are the top three challenges those served by the program face. Healthy Starts serves 130 families, many of whom are Medicaid-eligible, she added.

In her decade with the program, Vaine said, the way hunger manifests itself in the community has changed. Before, she said, families had no food in their cupboards; now, families of low income have access to empty calories, but healthier items aren’t always within reach.

“We’re finding that the children are hungry, and it’s not because (they) are not being fed,” she said, “but because they are not being fed great food.”

Vaine said she doesn’t know why this shift happened, but is interested in learning from other people who work on the issue and hopes to better understand hunger in the region as a result of tonight’s conversation.

Though the film doesn’t focus on New England, she said, the experiences of the kids in the documentary mirror what those living in poverty in southwestern New Hampshire may face. Many people, she said, may not know the extent to which their neighbors struggle.

“We just don’t have an awareness of what’s going on next door,” she said. “... There’s a group of people who are really invested in eating well and going to the farmers market and the CSAs, but they have no idea that there may be a next-door neighbor who maybe doesn’t have access to that, and wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all access that and maybe work together (toward) that?”

Liora Engel-Smith can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or lsmith@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @LEngelSmithKS.