By Samantha Joseph
TREASURE COAST - About one out of every three children on the Treasure Coast doesn't have enough food to stay healthy.
A new national study found that more than 33,500 children in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties are what the U.S. Department of Agriculture call "food insecure," which means they lack "consistent access to adequate amounts of food."
The study, sponsored by ConAgra Foods Foundation, is called "Map the Meal Gap: Child Food Insecurity 2012."
It provides a breakdown by county of the number of children who qualify for federal feeding programs. It also shows that despite not knowing where their next meal will come from, more than 10,000 area children do not qualify, based on family income and other criteria, for public aid and must depend on help from local nonprofits.
In Martin County, 6,740 children don't have enough food, and 44 percent of those don't qualify for federal child nutrition programs.
In St. Lucie County, 16,400 are going hungry and 29 percent cannot participate in federal assistance programs.
In Indian River County, 7,310 children do not know where their next meal will come from, and for 31 percent, if help comes, it will come from local nonprofits.
"The statistics speak for themselves," said Judy Cruz, CEO of the Treasure Coast Food Bank, which serves the four-county region.
"There's still a long way to go. About 30 percent of the children on the Treasure Coast are suffering from food insecurity. We're reaching a small percentage of them, but you have to start somewhere."
The nonprofit distributes about 7.5 million pounds of food each year, enough for 6.3 million meals.
It has also created an extensive set of programs to help feed the region's hungry, especially children.
A summer feeding program provides meals for children who typically get discounted food at school cafeterias, and would likely go hungry during vacation months.
The group's backpack program relies on school staff to identify students who might need extra food to take home on the weekend. Its school pantries expand on that idea, giving children enough food for their siblings and family.
"There are many families who have not felt any recovery from hard times yet. They continue to struggle for basic needs, and their children, who need good nutrition for health, education and future success, are especially at risk," said Ms. Cruz.
The nonprofit organization, which contributes to more than 250 charities on the Treasure Coast, is in need of financial assistance to help meet growing demand.
Every $1 donated provides seven meals for people in need, administrators said.
And supporters who want to volunteer can help stock shelves, sort food and work in other areas.
For ways to help and more information about hunger in the region, visit www.stophunber.org or call (772) 489-3034.