PHILADELPHIA could have been a model for the nation in fighting child hunger if it had found a way to fund a high-level position for an expert to focus solely on the issue, instead of adding it to the other anti-poverty duties of Mayor Nutter's new appointee, Mary Horstmann.

Although we agree with Horstmann that battling hunger can't be done without considering the wider implications of poverty, there's new evidence that "food hardship," especially among children, is getting worse, and won't be reduced without bold action.

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) reported yesterday that half (49.6 percent) of the families with children in Pennsylvania's 1st Congressional District experienced "food hardship" last year. That area - which includes most of South and North Philadelphia east of Broad Street, the lower Northeast and Chester - is the second worst in the nation.

In the 2nd District (most of the rest of the city plus Cheltenham), one in three households with children had experienced times in 2010 when they did not have enough money to buy food.

The new data only confirm what area food pantries and anti-hunger advocates have been seeing (but which remains mostly invisible to others). Food prices are going up, further outstripping the average $530 a month for a family of four provided by food stamps. More parents can't find enough food to feed their kids.

That means that undernourished children in this city are missing their one-time-only chance to develop physically to their full potential. It means their earliest experiences are of want, insecurity and fear. This has repercussions for everyone who lives here, hungry or not.

FRAC's report represents an analysis of a Gallup survey of 354,820 households that separated out families with children from families without, and found that the hunger problem is much more dire for families with small mouths to feed.

The Philadelphia region, which includes the suburbs, Camden and Wilmington, ranked 71st in this survey, with one in five families with children facing food hardship last year. It's clear that hunger is concentrated in the cities, which may be why members of the Pennsylvania Legislature and of Congress have not seemed to notice.

But the children themselves do notice: A recent survey found that children are very aware that their parents are struggling to provide food. Kids often try to help out by not eating or by urging siblings not to eat.

The rest of us need to take some of that responsibility. The easiest thing to do: Sign on to FRAC's petition to Congress opposing any more cuts to food stamps (frac.org).

There's much to be done locally: Make sure everyone who qualifies for food stamps gets them. The area's food-pantry system needs to be working at top efficiency. And most important: Keep a strong spotlight on this issue.