A ‘hungry winter’ ahead, as food insecurity remains severe

Child hunger has dipped since the summer but still remains near record levels, according to a new analysis from The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project. With Thanksgiving around the corner, the findings point to enduring hardship and food insecurity, eight months after the first pandemic-related shutdowns began.

Food insecurity among households with school-age children declined from 17 percent in June to 13 percent in October, according to the report. Despite that progress, the current rate still eclipses previous levels, including those reported during the Great Depression. Additional survey data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in late October indicated that just 44 percent of households with children were “very confident” they could afford food over the next 4 weeks. One in 10—or 3.5 million households—said they were “not at all confident.”

Households with children have borne the economic brunt of the pandemic. About 50 percent of families with school-age children suffered income losses during the pandemic, according to the report, as well as 44 percent with children younger than five. In normal times, schools provide child care and regular meals that parents can rely on, but the pandemic disrupted that support. Nearly 10 percent of parents with young children reported that their kids lacked sufficient food.

“For kids, this is terrible, for very young children, it’s tragic,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and the report’s author. “It’s appalling, unacceptable, and I hope that it’s galvanizing, because there’s no going back.” Nutrition plays a critical role in child development, especially in their first five years.

Persistent food insecurity during the pandemic has stemmed primarily from income losses, and offers a critical indicator of economic hardship. Among parents of school-age children who reported food shortages in October, 73 percent had faced a pandemic-related disruption to their income. Even families who participated in nutrition assistance programs struggled to put food on the table, according to the report, highlighting the severity of the current economic crisis.

According to Bauer, the decline in childhood hunger between June and October is the result of economic gains and a decline in unemployment—trends that are unlikely to last as the virus spikes across the country, triggering new economic shutdowns. Disbursements for child nutrition programs such as SNAP and Pandemic-EBT—a debit card with funds intended to make up for missed school meals—also increased between September and October; families who had not received Pandemic-EBT dollars in the 2019-2020 school year were able to receive them retroactively during that period. This assistance helped  struggling families put food on the table. But no Pandemic-EBT funds have been disbursed yet for the 2020-2021 school year. 

“We’re in a place again where schools are closed or closing, and we have a program that’s supposed to help fill the gap, but that money isn’t on the ground yet, and that’s a shame,” said Bauer. Although families will ultimately receive the funds, hunger isn’t something that can be solved retroactively. “This is meant to be a monthly benefit, not an intermittent massive sum.”

Advocates have consistently called for a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits, and have criticized emergency allotments that exclude households already receiving maximum benefits—home to 5 million children. The incoming Biden administration has expressed support for the 15-percent increase.

Food banks around the country have stepped up distribution efforts ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, but long lines reveal the scope of the crisis. With Pandemic Unemployment Insurance running out by the end of December, millions of families may find themselves even worse off going into the new year.

“Until the virus gets better, nothing in the economic outlook will get better,” Bauer said. “We’re looking at a long, cold, and hungry winter.”