Food Insecurity in America: What Child Hunger Looks Like

Food Insecurity in America: What Child Hunger Looks Like

by Lisa Davis, April 5, 2021

Over the past few months, our team at Family Resources has tried to shine a light on what it means to be poor in America. We have highlighted poverty rates across the country and have discussed why kids and teens hide homelessness from their peers. This month, we are looking at food insecurity.

Like dealing with poverty and homelessness, most kids don’t want their peers to know that they are struggling. It’s hard enough trying to secure a meal each day without your peers making fun of you or pitying you. However, because kids hide their current situations, it’s hard for teachers and friends to help out. It’s also hard to see just how many kids struggle with an empty refrigerator.

Take some time to learn about food insecurity in America’s children and how you can help. Here’s what it means to go hungry in one of the richest countries in the world.

The Numbers Behind Food Insecurity

As of 2017, 12.5 million kids lived in food-insecure households. This means one in six kids (17%) wasn’t able to get enough to eat. The parents in food-insecure families are hard workers. Sixty-three percent of food-insecure households have family members in the workforce and 53% are households with full-time workers. Families across America are working to scrape by, many of which have family members picking up multiple jobs (or less-desirable work) to put food on the table.

The rates of food insecurity change when you look at the numbers by race. A quarter (26%) of black and Hispanic households have food-insecure children. This is double the percent of white households (13%) in 2016.

These numbers are staggering, but there’s another level of food insecurity in America. The Children’s Defense Fund highlights how rates of food-insecure children are highest amongst immigrant families – and particularly those who are undocumented. These parents want the best for their kids but are wary about signing up for food programs or even enrolling their students in school. They don’t want to risk deportation and separation because they tried to get food for their kids. This also makes it difficult for resource providers to track how big the problem is.

These were gathered in 2018. However, the rates of food-insecure households are likely to increase because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Effects of COVID-19 on Child Hunger

The COVID-19 pandemic played a significant role in child hunger. Schools serve as a reliable source of food for many kids, who know they can eat at least two meals each day when they are present. When the pandemic shut down schools, both parents and teachers were worried about where students could receive hot meals safely.

Several groups jumped into action. Melinda Perry, Chief Operating Officer of Hope Villages of American (formerly RCS Pinellas) gathered her volunteers to start delivering meals to students who were still at home.

“Most of the kids being served through this program or the children who are staying home doing virtual school during the pandemic,” Perry told WTSP. “So far for this program, we think we’ve served about 5,000 meals to children in the Clearwater area.”

Several educators across the country have set up programs to make sure their students don’t go hungry while they learn remotely. This process has been eye-opening for teachers, who have seen the living conditions of their students first hand.

First-grade teacher Shiela Garland of Arizona shared how she knew 100% of her students ate free meals before the pandemic. However, it wasn’t until she started dropping off food that she saw the lack of electricity, broken windows, and other symptoms of poverty.

“Going out there and actually pulling up in front of the houses, you know, to deliver the food and stuff and seeing the situation these kids are living in – it breaks your heart,” Garland tells USA Today.

For even experienced educators, there is a big difference between knowing about hunger and seeing the reality – and fully understanding how the contents of your refrigerator can affect your whole life.

Predicting the Future of Child Hunger in America

Looking into 2021 and beyond, American children and their parents are going to continue to struggle with hunger. Even with vaccination rates increasing and schools admitting students back, experts are still worried.

One of the main causes of child hunger is unemployment. While unemployment numbers have dropped since the start of the pandemic, the monthly filing rates are still high. Plus, state unemployment benefits have specific end dates, which could create a hunger crisis when these benefits run out.

If America is headed to another recession after the pandemic, then unemployment (and child hunger) could remain high. This is crushing for individuals and organizations that have worked to fight against this trend.

“It’s particularly heartbreaking because before Covid hit, we were on a pathway to end childhood hunger and had seen remarkable progress over the last several years, all of which was undone in just a matter of months,” says Lisa Davis, senior vice president of the nonprofit No Kid Hungry. (Not the same Lisa Davis associated with Family Resources.)

Some non-profit managers feel like they are playing a game of chutes and ladders. After climbing several ladders for decades to reduce child hunger, they have slid back down with all their progress undone.

Fighting Child Hunger is a Community Effort

There are thousands of adults who dedicate several hours and resources each week to fighting child hunger. Along with community organizations, many teachers are working to keep their students fed. In an article for the Kitchn, Lauren Masur shared multiple stories of teachers who went above and beyond to help their students.

  • One teacher placed extra snacks and canned foods in the bags of needy students at recess so as not to embarrass them.
  • One teacher made sandwiches at the end of the day so students would have one last chance to eat before they went home.
  • Multiple teachers started keeping “snack stashes,” to help students who couldn’t focus because of their hunger.

Educators are on the front lines of child food insecurity. They helped long before the pandemic and will keep working once this chapter passes.

There are also calls to pay off student lunch debt. When students can’t afford to pay for lunches, some schools will refuse to serve them. Failing to pay could also lead to disciplinary action or even investigations into their families. This is why organizations are trying to pay off lunch debt while calling for greater understanding (and equity) in schools.

For example, the School Lunch Fairy is a 501(c)3 that works to pay off lunch balances. They have paid off almost 95,000 school lunches. A second-grade student in Vancouver, Washington made custom keychains and sold them for $5 apiece. He raised $4,015 to pay off the school lunch debt.

On a larger scale, legislatures are looking to eliminate student lunch debt as a whole, to ensure more students get the meals they need – especially when they can’t afford them. In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer added $1 million to the education budget to cover student lunch debt.

There are multiple sources of student food insecurity, from kids not having food at home to students failing to pay for food at school. Pinellas communities, and organizers across the country, are working to make sure no child goes hungry in the future.

How Family Resources Fights Child Hunger

At Family Resources, we want kids across Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Pasco counties to have access to daily meals – and just as importantly, healthy meals that are packed with nutrition. This is why we participate in the Child Care Food Program, which provides meal reimbursement to licensed family child care providers. This creates a budget for these providers to serve hot, healthy meals to kids daily, if not twice a day.

In 2020, our CCFP reimbursed 340 in-home daycare providers, which provided 941,462 healthy meals to local children. We helped kids focus on learned and development because they were no longer worried about where their next meal was coming from.

Fighting child hunger will be a community effort. We are trying to do our part, and by supporting Family Resources, you can too. Please consider making a donation to our organization so we can keep feeding local youth.