An empty stomach is surely everyone's neighbor; Washington state ranks near the top of an infamous list

Picture this: You're 8 or 9 years old, and the last "good" meal you remember was a can of something - yesterday. (Or was it the day before?)

It's a school day, so hopefully you're in one. The teacher and your classmates might be talking about, say, arithmetic. But do you really care if 56 divided by 7 is 8? Or if it's 7, or 9, or whatever?

Everybody says knowing the right answers will be important someday - and maybe they're right. But what about this day?

Or put yourself in these shoes: You're a young adult. It's your son or daughter over in that classroom, thinking about a can of something instead of how many times this number goes into that one.

You're doing the best you can to find or keep a decent place to live; finding and keeping a good job would be a bonus.

If your family's safety and shelter aren't a sure thing, then healthy meals are a "luxury" you might just as well scratch off this day's agenda. Or this week's.

Maybe you're an older person: Suppose that youngster is your grandchild. You'd give the world to help out - you'd do anything for family. Who wouldn't! Most likely, you've come through a hundred times with a sack of groceries, and a roof for at least a week or two.

But no more. No, not this day. And not this week, and not this month.

In fact, they won't be getting any more help from you at all. You've got too many of your own medical bills and pharmacy bills and hospital bills and....

For more years than most anyone wants to admit, Washington, pound-for-pound, has been one of the hungriest states in the land. As many men, women and children here as just about anywhere else in the wealthiest nation in the world are either going without regular meals or they're living in fear of it.

The Seattle Food Committee, which is a coalition of food-bank providers, reports that almost 170,000 people visited food banks in Seattle last year. Food banks in our town saw 60,000 children 18 years old or younger. This was an increase of almost 10 percent over the year before.

Put another way: Safeco Field isn't nearly big enough to hold the number of children living in Seattle who probably know a lot more about the inside of a food bank than they know about the inside of their times table.

Also last year, and more disturbing, more than 4,500 infants were taken to Seattle food banks - a 30-percent increase above the previous year.

Hunger is a terrible poison in our society; no one can argue that. And what about the fear of hunger? According to an Oregon Center for Public Policy analysis, more than 11,500 Seattle children 19 years old or younger suffer every year from "food insecurity." This phrase means exactly what you think it means: These children don't know where their next meal is coming from.

Food banks are so very important in making sure thousands of Seattle children and their families don't go without a meal. But emergency-food providers can't work miracles. The fact that thousands of additional families are insecure about their next meal points out a gap - a chasm, in fact - between what we're doing now and what we need to do.

This is a statewide issue, too. A hungry stomach is everyone's neighbor. A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that more than 100,000 Washington households in 2002 had personal experience with hunger and 290,000 other households were on the brink. These numbers made Washington the fifth-hungriest state in the nation - actually an improvement over our No. 2 ranking the year before, but still bad enough to keep us in this infamous top five for almost 10 years running.

I've sponsored legislation that will confront hunger on several fronts. The "Act for Hungry Families" (House Bill 2769) will provide meals for more citizens who are eligible for the Basic Food program.

The measure will also provide breakfast and lunch for more of our hungry children at school and in summer nutritional programs.

Food banks will continue to provide supplemental groceries to hungry and food-insecure families. But as more resources become available, fewer people will be forced to rely on food, and fewer children will be forced to experience hunger and the fear of it firsthand.

The Act for Hungry Families emphasizes:

Meals for children - School-lunch and breakfast programs will be required in all elementary schools by the year 2008.

Summer-meals programs would be required in schools where a high percentage of students live in low-income families.

z Simplified reporting - Reporting-requirements will be streamlined for 206,000 Washington families who, in any given month, participate in the food-stamp program.

Transitional benefits - For five months after leaving the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, people could continue receiving food stamps.

Let's embrace this goal: Within five years in our state, every elementary-school student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches will have access to a school-breakfast program. It's understandable that hungry children aren't good students. How did it feel, picturing yourself as that 8- or 9-year-old at the top of this story? If you're that age - or any age, really, in a child's school years - and you're worried about where your next meal is coming from, education falls way down on your priorities.

The Act for Hungry Families will bring a school-lunch program to 28 schools that don't have one right now, and a good meal will be provided for more than 1,100 children. Breakfast will be served in 140 schools for students who aren't getting this most important meal at home right now because their folks can't afford it.

Transitional benefits could be just the right boost for the approximately 2,000 families who leave the TANF program in an average month. This assistance can be a safety net for citizens who are working hard to make ends meet and keep their lives on the right track.

Put another way: Recent legislative sessions have emphasized the need for streamlining our state's business-permit process. Shouldn't we also make the paperwork less cumbersome for hungry people who just want to eat?

If one child is going to bed hungry, that's one child too many.

If one parent scrambles in vain to find a decent meal for an innocent family, that's one parent too many.

If one senior citizen has to choose between putting supper on the table or putting a rent check in the mail, that's one senior citizen too many.

If anyone in our state goes without food, then truth can't let it go without saying: Our society is starving for justice.

State Rep. Eric Pettigrew represents the 37th Legislative District of Central and Southeast Seattle. A Democrat in his first term in Olympia, Pettigrew is vice chair of the House Juvenile Justice & Family Law Committee and is also a member of the House Children & Family Services Committee and the House Trade & Economic Development Committee.

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