In the early weeks of the pandemic, about one in four nonelderly adults (24.6 percent) with children younger than 19 and about one in four (25.6 percent) with children younger than 6 reported their households were food insecure in the previous month, according the new data from the Urban Institute’s Health Reform Monitoring Survey.
Food insecurity rates among non-Hispanic black adults with children (37.4 percent) and Hispanic adults with children (39.3 percent) were roughly double those of non-Hispanic white adults with children (17.6 percent), providing additional evidence that fallout from the pandemic is particularly harsh for communities of color.
Hispanic adults with children who had a noncitizen family member living in the household reported the highest rates of food insecurity: 43.3 percent. The strain on these families is particularly worrisome, given that households with noncitizens may be excluded from both ongoing safety net and emergency assistance programs or reluctant to pursue programs for which they are eligible, given the challenging immigration environment.
How food insecurity affects children
Food insecurity at any age carries the risk of poor physical and mental health outcomes. But food insecurity in households with children is particularly concerning because poor outcomes may influence health and well-being at sensitive points in human development, including both early childhood and adolescence.
Research shows that children living in food-insecure households are at greater odds of fair or poor health, are more likely to be hospitalized in early childhood, may experience behavioral issues that interfere with schooling, and are at higher risk of certain chronic diseases, such as asthma. Among adolescents, food insecurity is associated with depression and suicidal ideation. There is an urgent need to ensure children and youth, regardless of income, race and ethnicity, or their family’s citizenship status, are not going without the food they need to thrive, learn, and grow.
Although living in a food insecure household risks poor outcomes among children and youth, we should be especially concerned about the rates of very low food security among families with children.
Approximately 1 in 10 adults with children report their households are experiencing very low food security—the most severe condition, in which food intake has been significantly reduced or disrupted (9.3 percent of families with kids younger than 19 and 10.8 percent of families with kids younger than 6).
For adults with children in low-income families (with family incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level), the rate of very low food security increases to 16.1 percent. Rates of very low food security are highest among non-Hispanic black families with children (17.5 percent).
Though adults actively shield children from inadequate access to food, such as skipping meals so kids can eat, just living in a household experiencing such severe deprivation can create additional stress for children. Research indicates that older children and adolescents also may engage in household food management strategies and attempt to shield younger siblings (PDF).
What would it take to keep families fed?
Food insecurity among children is both an immediate challenge and a long-term threat to the country’s well-being.
First and foremost, every food insecure household, especially those with children, should be able to access assistance to meet their basic food needs. Though some steps have been taken to increase access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other food assistance programs, we need to do more.
- The maximum SNAP benefit fails to cover the cost of a low-income meal in 99 percent of US counties. Federal action to boost the maximum benefit and increase the minimum household benefit would ensure households are better positioned to meet their basic food needs, especially considering the pandemic’s economic fallout will likely last long after the public health emergency.
- Comprehensive efforts like robust school-based initiatives that may need to transition into summer service, pandemic electronic benefit transfer, and home-delivered food boxes to families in rural areas would help reach more at-risk families with children.
- Public charge rules, which count SNAP use as a negative factor in adjustments to future immigration status, could be suspended so immigrant households do not fear applying for the program if they have eligible household members.
- Emergency assistance could be made available to more households during this extraordinary crisis in order to ensure all families have more resources to meet basic needs. Actions such as withholding stimulus payments from citizens who are married to someone who files taxes using an Individual Tax Payer Identification Number, which noncitizens without a Social Security number may do, could undermine the well-being of vulnerable families.
As the pandemic has shown in the starkest terms, the well-being of one person is inextricably linked to the well-being of all. Risking the well-being of any child is risking the prospects for our collective future.