Right here in the United States, one in four children don’t have enough to eat. The impact this has on their health, their development — their future — is staggering.
For families living in or at the edge of poverty, the effects of the pandemic have been especially devastating. While child care centers and schools are closed and safety nets disintegrate under enormous demand, families that have been thrust into poverty see little hope of getting out. Meeting basic needs such as food and shelter has become a daily challenge; many are one eviction notice away from homelessness. Parents go without food to feed their children, relying heavily on free lunches from schools and food banks, many of which have strained to meet demand.
Amy Bardwell never expected to be picking up free groceries at her neighborhood food pantry. But she worries every month about how to scrape together the money needed to pay her family’s rent and utility bills and still have enough left over for food.
A few years ago, Amy and her husband, Otis, who are parents of Edmund, 3, and Lydia, 7, were living comfortably in the Los Angeles suburbs. When Otis decided to go back to school for a master’s degree, the college-educated couple felt sure it would make him even more employable as a college art instructor. “He wanted to shift away from office administration,” explains Bardwell, who now works part-time as a nanny, bringing Edmund with her.
In order to put dinner on the table, the family has cut back every expense they can. They’ve deferred student loans and they pay cash for everything to avoid credit-card debt. “It can feel surreal because we live in a pretty affluent neighborhood — I see other moms getting together for coffee at Starbucks, which I can’t do now,” says Bardwell. “One of the most discouraging things is not being able to afford the piano lessons and gymnastics classes that our kids see their friends taking. I hate for them to miss out.” Bardwell tries to put a positive spin on their situation when she talks about it with Lydia and Edmund. “I try to say that everybody needs help sometimes, and right now we’re getting help from some nice people,” she explains. “I also talk about how it’s important for us to help others. I’ll hand them a quarter to put in the Salvation Army bucket, for example, so they get a sense of what it feels like to give as well as receive.”
She admits that she’s worried about other people’s reactions when she’s reached out for help. “I’ve had to get over my own preconceptions, where I’d think, ‘Oh, you just need to work harder,’ or ‘Don’t waste your money on the nonessential stuff,'” Bardwell admits, getting teary-eyed. “Because now it’s my son’s birthday and I really want to buy some frosting to put on the cake mix we got at the food pantry. And that’s nonessential. But it just doesn’t feel that way when it’s your child.”
The family hasn’t missed a meal yet, but Bardwell isn’t sure where they’d be without regular trips to the food pantry. Many nights, they eat rice and beans, sometimes with a canned vegetable on the side. “We’re so thankful for the help, but it can be frustrating because it’s not, ‘What do I feel like cooking tonight?’ anymore,” Bardwell adds. “It’s, ‘What did we get and will it be enough to keep everyone well fed?'”
Nationwide, food insecurity has become a pervasive problem. The percentage of families with children who reported not having enough to eat more than tripled compared with 2019. One report found nearly half of American families lived with hunger last summer.
The Bardwell’s are four of the approximately 42 million people—one in eight individuals in America—that experience food insecurity in 2021 due to the ongoing economic fallout from COVID-19. It’s a group that now includes more than 17 million children, meaning one in four American kids are what the United States Department of Agriculture classifies as “food insecure,” or living in a household that has difficulty providing enough food for all of its members. The states with the highest food-insecurity rates are, in order: Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina. Households with children report food insecurity at almost tripled the rate of childless households, and Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food pantries, says the number of children using its services has jumped 150% percent in the past year. Nearly half of its clients are now in suburban and rural areas.
Families with babies and young kids are the ones who are least likely to be getting enough to eat — and these children are also the group that suffers the most from being malnourished. Though hunger gets the most media attention around the holidays, summertime is actually the roughest stretch for many children because they can’t rely on free or low-cost school-provided breakfasts and lunches to get them through the week. “Before the recession, we had a lot of families living very close to the edge,” says Parents advisor Irwin Redlener, M.D., president of the Children’s Health Fund. “Now, they have fallen off the cliff.”
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How Hunger Impacts Health
In a third of food-insecure homes, one or more family members sometimes go hungry. Tangela Fedrick’s household, which includes her children, 2-year-old Tasir and 3-year-old Asyiah, plus Fedrick’s own teenage brother and sister, falls into this category. “There’s never enough food,” says Fedrick, 22, a single mom in West Philadelphia. She wants her family to be well-nourished, but there are weeks every month when that’s not possible. “By the time I buy diapers, pay for day care and get my transit pass so I can go to work and school, and pay co-pays on my kids’ asthma medication, there’s nothing left,” she explains. “So if all we have is cereal or toast, that’s what we have for dinner. A lot of the time, that’s what we eat for breakfast and dinner.”
The person most likely to go hungry in homes like hers? Mom. “As long as I know my babies ate something, I’ll be fine,” insists Fedrick, who regularly skips meals. “I can drink some water and wait it out.” But experts agree that children can still suffer even when they’re not the ones who are hungry. “Parents deprive themselves to feed their children, and now you have an irritable, exhausted mother who can’t cope as well,” says Deborah Frank, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. “When we hear yelling in the waiting room, it’s usually because the mom, child, or both is really, really hungry,” says Dr. Frank, who keeps graham crackers and milk on hand to give to children and mothers who come to her clinic.
Mothers in food-insecure households are also three times more likely to report depressive symptoms than mothers who get enough to eat, according to a policy action brief from Children’s HealthWatch, which studies how economic conditions affect children under age 3. Depressed moms are less likely to show affection, read stories, play games, and offer other forms of interaction, which are so critical to a young child’s developing brain. Breastfeeding can help buffer infants against the negative effects of food insecurity, but only when Mom gets enough to eat: A malnourished nursing mom will have trouble producing enough breast milk, and studies show it often lacks critical nutrients like vitamins D, B12, and A
When the situation is so dire that children do miss meals, the consequences continue to snowball. “The scary thing is that a child’s mental development will be impacted long before you see an effect on growth,” notes Dr. Frank, founding principal investigator of Children’s HealthWatch. When babies and toddlers don’t eat enough, their body tries to conserve heat for physical needs, so they become less active. “They sleep more and explore less, which means they miss out on the crucial learning that a normal child experiences,” she explains. “Once this ground is lost, it’s very hard to get it back.”
Hungry infants and toddlers are also more likely to catch infections, have anemia or other health problems, and be hospitalized than children who are well-nourished. Dr. Frank sees a handful of cases each year where desperate parents overdilute infant formula to make the cans last longer. “This causes low blood salt, which can lead to seizures,” she notes. “Parents might also give their baby cow’s milk or even soda, both of which are cheaper than formula but can lead to growth failure and other health problems. Once a child becomes malnourished, she needs 50 percent more quality nutrition than a typical child does in order to regain her health.”
While it may seem paradoxical, hunger also plays a key role in another major public health issue: childhood obesity. “Parents may buy fruits and vegetables until their disposable income is drastically reduced, but then they have to turn to very low-cost foods that are higher in fat and calories,” explains Dr. Redlener. Poor neighborhoods are more likely to lack grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and other affordable sources of healthy foods. Even if you can find products for sale in your neighborhood, you might not be able to afford them: A study from the University of Washington found that junk food can cost an average of $3.32 per 1,000 calories, compared with a whopping $27.20 per 1,000 calories for nutritious foods. “I often hear things like, ‘Those people can’t be hungry — they’re fat!'” says Janet Poppendieck, Ph.D. “But the least healthy, most obesity-inducing calories in our society are often the cheapest.”
Falling Through the Gap
Despite the rise in unemployment and stereotypes about out-of-work welfare moms, most adults on food stamps (and 36 percent of food-pantry users) are working but unable to find jobs that pay a living wage. Things actually got harder for Fedrick when she received a pay raise at her part-time job. “I went from $7.50 to $7.75 an hour, so my cash assistance stopped,” Fedrick explains. She now has a full-time job in a day-care center but still doesn’t make enough to cover her expenses.
Many families don’t realize they could qualify for more help (such as food stamps), or they fall through a gap in the system where they can’t pay their own bills but aren’t poor enough to qualify for aid. In one 2008 study, 21 percent of children going hungry lived in households with an income higher than the cutoff needed to get the reduced-price lunch and breakfast program at school, says Dr. Poppendieck.
Even when families do qualify for help, obtaining assistance can be difficult. “Our safety net is completely broken,” says Mariana Chilton, Ph.D., associate professor of public health at Drexel University and director of Witnesses to Hunger, a research and advocacy project working with families who have experienced hunger. “It’s rare to talk to someone receiving assistance who hasn’t been mistreated or had critical documents lost. It’s so frustrating.”
This highlights a troubling trend. Namely, that food insecurity was a huge issue for the U.S. before COVID-19; it was a huge issue during the pandemic; and it will continue to be so after. And, in particular, those who are most at risk of food insecurity will continue to be especially vulnerable.
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