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By: Dr. Tami Silverman    

One of the COVID-19 pandemic’s many negative consequences is a drastic rise in the number of children and families suffering food insecurity. September is National Hunger Awareness Month. More than ever, we must work to find solutions and support existing ways to meet this critical, foundational need.

The lack of a nutritious, consistent food supply has significant implications for child development and well-being. Children from food-insecure households are more likely to have social and behavioral problems and developmental challenges. Past research, including a study from the National Institutes of Health, found that food insecurity affects the academic performance, body weight, and social skills of school-age children. Elementary-aged children from food-insecure families were found more likely to have lower math scores and to repeat a grade. Teenagers in food-insecure homes were more likely to have mental health issues. Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children in food-insecure household had increased rates of lifetime asthma diagnosis, depressive symptoms, foregone medical care, and emergency department use.

Before Covid-19, the number of hungry children in Indiana and across the country had been declining for years. Prior to the pandemic 1 in 6 Hoosier children were food insecure. Hoosiers living in rural areas tend to have the highest rates of food insecurity, with urban areas a close second. Pre-pandemic child food insecurity rates ranged from 21.0% in Grant County to 11.9% in Hamilton County.

The pandemic has brought an abrupt halt to this progress. Food insecurity rates are, not surprisingly, linked with unemployment rates and income. Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study predicts how changes in employment will affect food insecurity. Their study projects that a significant rise in unemployment over the year (+7.6 percentage points), and a corresponding rise in child poverty (+5.0 percentage points), would result in 1 in 4 children experiencing food insecurity. Feeding America’s concerns are reinforced by a new report from Save the Children and research from Northwestern University that both estimate that the current percentage of food insecure families is higher than during the Great Recession.

Hoosiers living in rural areas tend to have the highest rates of food insecurity, with urban areas a close second. In addition, No Kid Hungry reports that African American households face hunger at twice the rate of the national average. The higher rates of food insecurity are directly related to the racial wealth gap. Households headed by a single parent also experience food insecurity at significantly higher rates, especially when the head is female, as do households where a child or parent is disabled.

Many organizations and communities have been working to stop the pandemic from perpetuating or deepening these inequities. Food banks, schools, churches, afterschool programs, and community organizations responded quickly last spring to create new channels for food distribution. Drive-thru centers, to-go meals, and drop-off food programs were often specifically designed to address child hunger when school buildings abruptly closed. Schools remain the nation’s second-largest nutrition assistance program, after only the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) Program. In 2019, 47.3% of Indiana students received free or reduced-price meals: 39.5% received free meals and 7.8% received reduced-price meals at school. In March, Congress created the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (or P-EBT program) for households with children who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch to receive the cash value of those meals on electronic benefits cards.

As school opening plans varied this fall, there was well-founded concern that our children could end up going hungry. In late August, Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), Feeding America, the School Nutrition Association, Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, along with 70 national and state organizations, including Indiana Youth Institute, asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to extend critical nationwide child nutrition program waivers, allowing schools and community organizations to continue operating summer nutrition programs, through the 2020-2021 school year. Members of Congress from both parties supported the extension, which was eventually granted. There is on-going, bi-partisan support for child food security programs, centrally SNAP and Pandemic-EBT, to be strengthened and expanded in response to the pandemic.

We all can play a role in ensuring our children and our neighbor’s children have access to the basic nutritional building blocks needed to grow and succeed. We can and should donate funds and/or food to our local food banks. We also can support the policy solutions that will prevent children from going hungry. Call your elected officials and urge them to continue to support these critical food programs. By addressing the impacts of the pandemic and by working to ensure Hoosier kids have access to adequate, healthy food year-round, we can positively affect every child’s physical and mental well-being, academic achievement, and future economic productivity.

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(Dr. Tami Silverman is the President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at iyi@iyi.org  or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI. IYI’s mission is to improve the lives of all Indiana children by strengthening and connecting the people, organizations, and communities that are focused on kids and youth.)