For children to have stability in their daily lives, consistent access to food is necessary, as our recently released conceptual model on Stabilizing Children’s Lives shows. The federal nutrition safety net helps families provide food for their children, but its gaps can expose children to food insecurity and the associated short- and long-term negative outcomes. With many parents losing jobs and stability because of the COVID-19 pandemic, current gaps in the food safety net can exacerbate both short-term challenges and the ongoing problem of food insecurity among households with children.
We spoke with Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, about three areas for improvement in the safety net that could stabilize children’s access to food.
1. Tailor SNAP benefits to better meet children’s nutritional needs
For many lower-income households with children, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a highly effective federal policy lever that reduces food insecurity and poverty. Yet research suggests the program does not adequately meet many eligible children and families’ nutritional needs. Unlike most safety net programs, SNAP benefits are fixed nationwide (save Alaska and Hawaii) despite local differences in food prices, which results in varied purchasing power.
The maximum SNAP benefit per meal does not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 99 percent of counties in the US. Recent research suggests that increasing SNAP’s purchasing power by 10 percent would reduce food insecurity for children by 22 percent and that setting SNAP benefits equal to the average cost of a low-income meal could reduce food insecurity among all participants by about 50 percent. Tailoring SNAP benefits to where families live would help support all families in stabilizing children’s access to food.
2. Address the limitations of nutrition programs in early childhood
Even though the food safety net has programs targeting families with infants and younger children, research shows that access barriers and program limitations hurt their effectiveness.
For example, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) serves pregnant and postpartum women and children up to age 5. Unfortunately, the age cap creates a window of no service for some children when they age out of WIC but haven’t started school. Research shows spikes in food insecurity for the whole family around the time a child ages out of WIC, most likely from the loss of service. Programs that determine eligibility by a specific, time-limited criteria therefore run the risk of not addressing the needs of everyone in the household.
Moreover, there are notable drops in WIC participation after a child turns 1, and the program reaches just more than half the eligible population. These challenges appear to be related to how WIC benefits are redeemed, pointing to the cumbersome nature of paper vouchers. But common misconceptions around eligibility, transportation problems, time away from work, and linguistic and cultural barriers also discourage parents from using WIC.
Transitioning to an electronic benefits format could improve communication around eligibility and streamline the application process.
The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which supports meals and snacks for eligible children in center- and family-based child care, provides another example, as the program tends to be used more in center-based care settings than family care settings. The large administrative burden to enroll in the program and the complex requirements around compliance prevent many eligible children in family care settings from receiving these benefits. Making CACFP easier for family care homes to use will help ensure children can eat well, regardless of their care setting.
3. Recognize the food needs of adolescents
Much of the focus on food insecurity centers on how it affects households with young children, but adolescent food insecurity is both prevalent (an estimated 6.8 million young people ages 10 to 17 face food insecurity) and comes with its own unique set of challenges.
An Urban Institute report showed that many teenagers fear stigma around hunger and strategize about how to make food last for the whole family, often taking on adult-like worries. At times, these choices can lead to dropping out of school to get a job, engaging in criminal behavior such as shoplifting or selling drugs, or having sexual relationships in exchange for food money.
In a follow-up report, teens said they didn’t know what food programs were available to them, shared concerns about SNAP’s income eligibility threshold, and noted that portions of school lunches were too small and seemingly based on younger children’s hunger. To better serve adolescents, programs must pay special attention to these worries in the design phase. Combining food with other services, targeting ad campaigns, and expanding SNAP benefits for families with teens during the summer could address stigma, raise awareness, and provide year-round stability.
Although the existing food safety net plays a critical role in stabilizing millions of American children’s access to food, notable gaps leave certain groups of children vulnerable. Taking these three steps can help address these challenges and mend the web of stabilizing supports necessary for children to thrive.