While children are among the least likely to develop severe illnesses or become hospitalized as a result of COVID-19, they remain vulnerable to the downstream effects of the pandemic, including the experience of food insecurity, or a lack of consistent and dependable access to enough food. Feeding America notes that the food insecurity rate, which had reached a low point before the pandemic, is once again on the rise, particularly among school-age children. In addition to being an indicator of ongoing hardship and economic distress, food insecurity has been shown to have significant consequences for children’s health and development. Various federal, state, and local efforts are attempting to mitigate this growing problem. This blog provides an overview of the issue and examines efforts to address it.
Childhood Food Insecurity is Growing
With rising unemployment and COVID-19 keeping many children out of school for in-person learning, the pandemic has driven food insecurity among children to its highest levels in decades. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported in 2019 that 13.6 percent of U.S. households with children experienced food insecurity. As of June 2020, 27.5 percent of households with children were food-insecure, contributing to an increase of 8.5 million food-insecure children since the start of the pandemic.
According to the Urban Institute, one in four families with children ages 6-18 reported living in food-insecure households in September 2020. School closures in the fall of 2020 added to the growing burden, both by limiting children’s access to school meals and compelling some parents to leave their jobs to support children at home.
In 2019, nearly 30 million children, more than 50 percent of all school-age children, received free or reduced-price meals through USDA’s National School Lunch Program. School breakfasts and lunches are designed to provide more than half of a child’s daily dietary intake. Even though more children have become eligible for free or reduced-price school meals as a result of both expanded USDA policies and rising unemployment, many of these children have not actually participated in the program. According to the U.S Census Bureau’s weekly Household Pulse Survey in June 2020, the pandemic severely strained the reach of these programs, providing meals to only 15 percent of qualifying households with children. Further, a November 2020 study estimated that 1.15 billion free and reduced eligible U.S. school meals were missed due to school closures in a span of just nine weeks in the spring of 2020.
Food Insecurity in Childhood Can Have Long-Term Effects
The conditions where we are born, live, learn, work, and play, including our access to proper and nutritious food, have a direct influence on overall health. For example, residents of areas considered food deserts, communities with limited access to healthy and affordable food, can experience significant obstacles in accessing food. Children from lower socioeconomic statuses are also more vulnerable to having inconsistent food sources and prolonged poor nutrition. A 2018 Children's Health Watch study of 23,820 children concluded that children in food-insecure households were at increased risk for poor health and developmental outcomes.
Furthermore, unstable food access is linked to a higher prevalence of health problems among food-insecure children, including nutrient deficiencies, lower non-cognitive performance in school, tooth decay, depression, and anxiety. These children also experience significantly worse general health, develop chronic health ailments and have less health care access compared to their counterparts in food-secure households. For example, children in food-insecure households had 19.1 percent higher rates of asthma diagnosis and 27.9 percent higher rates of depressive symptoms over the lifetime.
Mitigating Rising Childhood Food Insecurity
In the wake of school closures and high unemployment, the federal government, local food banks, and other entities have attempted to curb rising hunger among school-age children through several approaches.
Addressing Childhood Food Insecurity during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Congress and the USDA took steps to provide short-term boosts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as the program saw a 17 percent increase in enrollment between February 2020 and May 2020, increasing the program’s total caseload by 6.2 million participants. The Families First Coronavirus Act (FFCRA), passed in March 2020, included provisions to allow states to increase SNAP benefits up to the maximum benefit level. Months later, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 extended a temporary 15 percent increase in the maximum SNAP benefit through September. Given that half of all households participating in SNAP have children, temporary adjustments to SNAP bolster the social safety net and likely provide additional financial support for some children. However, recent expansions to USDA programs have likely had a more direct daily impact on school-age children.
For instance, the USDA’s Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (Pandemic-EBT) program, created by the FFCRA, has been one of the most comprehensive approaches to feeding children during the pandemic. Through Pandemic-EBT, households with children who rely on free or reduced-price school meals can access extra monetary benefits equivalent to the value of the meals they missed because of COVID-19-related school and childcare closures. The program mitigated hunger for 2.7 million to 3.9 million children in the early months of the pandemic when many schools were closed to in-person learning.
To further address children’s access to food, the federal government extended child nutrition waivers allowing all children, regardless of income, to receive free school meals through June 2021. This action waives requirements that the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option programs serve meals in person and in group settings. With the waiver extension, schools and other local program operators can serve meals through these programs in all areas, thus increasing food availability during weekends and while schools are not open for in-person learning.
While these federal program flexibilities are encouraging, states and school districts have taken varied approaches in implementation. Many districts continue to struggle to meet their students’ needs, with schools and other stakeholders continuing to see low participation rates in meal programs. In the meantime, districts have taken creative approaches to feeding students, such as by providing grab-and-go meals at free lunch sites, delivering meals on bus routes, or allowing parents to pick up a weeks’ worth of meals at a time.
The nation’s emergency food system has struggled to close the remaining gaps of this patchwork approach. Local food banks and other charitable organizations mobilized to respond to increases in demand of up to 50 percent in 2020. Part of the increased demand comes as food banks support the millions of Americans newly facing food insecurity who do not qualify for SNAP, as well as those who already receive federal assistance but also rely on emergency supports. This twofold burden looms large, as organizations prepare to enter a second year of increased demand.
In addition to efforts to revise eligibility for SNAP benefits, the Biden administration has taken immediate steps to address child food insecurity during the 2020-2021 school year. The USDA increased the current Pandemic-EBT daily benefit amount by approximately 15 percent. Furthermore, the American Rescue Plan Act allows states to continue Pandemic-EBT during the summer and through the remainder of the public health emergency, helping guard against food-insecurity among children this summer.
Other actions by the Biden administration affecting food program participation include the early February Executive Order issued by President Biden that called for an immediate review of the 2019 public charge rule. The 2019 rule allowed federal officials to deny documented immigrants a path to citizenship if they use certain kinds of public assistance, such as SNAP benefits. On March 9, 2021, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the rule is no longer in effect, meaning foreign nationals will not need to provide information solely required by the 2019 regulation. The action will likely help to encourage families to participate in programs such as SNAP and Medicaid, without fear of consequences to their immigration status.
The pandemic has been a major setback for eliminating childhood hunger nationwide and shed light on just how vulnerable many school-age children are to food insecurity. While temporary innovations and long-term federal solutions kept childhood food insecurity rates from climbing even higher in recent months, severe gaps in food assistance programs remain. With new efforts in place to control the pandemic, such as COVID-19 vaccines, and many schools opening for in-person learning, more children could be returning to schools, and thus experience an increase in access to their previous sources of food. Rather than having to focus on immediate needs, state and federal programs could then shift their focus to addressing the underlying causes of food insecurity and make progress toward eliminating food insecurity for school-age children across the U.S.
IMPAQ experts are prepared to meet the needs of stakeholders across the food security landscape during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. With projects and research related to food insecurity, our interactive Barriers to Food Access Locator tool, and our work with partners such as Share Our Strength, IMPAQ is committed to analyzing emerging issues in the context of health equity, social determinants of health, and food security.
Emily Bass, Analyst, IMPAQ Health
Surakshya Karki, MPH, Research Analyst, IMPAQ Health
Paula Mian, MPP, Senior Research Analyst, IMPAQ Data Science and Artificial Intelligence
Zachary Miller, MPA, Senior Research Associate, IMPAQ Health
Jennifer Pooler, MPP, Principal Research Associate, IMPAQ Health
Dr. Mithuna Srinivasan, Senior Research Economist, IMPAQ Health