In pandemic, one in five children are not getting enough to eat, says report

An unprecedented number of U.S. children — 13.9 million — are experiencing food insecurity and did not have sufficient food in late June due to the coronavirus pandemic, said an analysis from the Hamilton Project on Thursday. “This level of need merits a substantial and immediate public investment,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow at the Hamilton Project and author of the analysis.

Bauer recommended an increase of at least 15 percent in SNAP benefits “in response to evidence of surging food prices and unprecedented levels of food insecurity among all households and among children.” She also urged retention of the so-called P-EBT initiative to help low-income parents feed school-age children during school closures. “Around 14 million children require immediate nutrition assistance, and these are effective policy levers to pull.”

Anti-hunger groups have campaigned for weeks for a temporary 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits — equal to about $20 per month, per person — as part of coronavirus relief. The White House has opposed an increase. Negotiations between the Democratic-controlled House, which has voted for the increase, and the Republican-run Senate, which has rejected previous proposals, are expected to begin in late July over a new coronavirus relief bill.

“We should be focusing on things like unemployment insurance and expanding safety net programs like SNAP fundamentally because those programs provide social insurance — they mitigate economic hardship in a time of crisis,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, during a news conference called by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank.

Separately, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is active on health issues, said that the Trump administration should allow schools “to serve free meals to every student during the coming school year” and that Congress should appropriate the additional money to pay for it. “With the number of children who would otherwise qualify for free and reduced-price meals expected to jump significantly, the federal government should step in to ensure that every child is properly fed during the school day at no expense to schools or families.”

Food insecurity rates have skyrocketed during the pandemic and the accompanying economic slowdown. Three times as many children are suffering from food insecurity during the pandemic as did during the worst of the Great Recession, and the current rate is 5.6 times higher than in 2018, when U.S. food insecurity rates were back to pre-recession levels, said Bauer’s analysis, which was based on weekly Census Bureau surveys. If respondents reported having insufficient food, they were asked if it was “often,” “sometimes,” or “never” true in the previous week that children in the household “were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.”

“In June 2020, around 16 percent of households with children reported that their children were not eating enough over the last week due to a lack of resources. While the overall rate is the highest on record, Black and Hispanic children are experiencing food insecurity at even higher and extremely alarming rates,” said the analysis. “About three in 10 Black households with children and one in four Hispanic households with children did not have sufficient food due to a lack of resources in June 2020, while white households with children reported a child food insecurity rate just under 10 percent.”

About half of the respondents who said their children did not have sufficient food were employed but said they did not earn enough to cover basic household needs. An additional quarter of respondents said they had lost their job or were temporarily not working due to the pandemic.

The Hamilton Project is an economic policy initiative, launched in 2006, within the Brookings Institution.