‘Pandemic Has Exposed the Inequities of Childhood Hunger’

Kimberly Montez, MD, MPH, FAAP

June 5, 2020

While the pandemic has wreaked havoc on everyone’s lives, it has been particularly challenging for low-income families with children — like the families I see every day as a pediatrician in Winston-Salem, N.C. 

Now more than ever, this pandemic has exposed the inequities of childhood hunger in the backyard of our First World country. Families that struggled with hunger before the pandemic have been disproportionately impacted by job losses, school and child care closures, and an overwhelmed charitable food system. 

Even before the pandemic, food insecurity rates were unacceptably high among households with children; in my county, 1 in 5 children suffered from food insecurity. Now, in a recent national survey, 42% of respondents with children reported that they worry about running out of food.

It is well-established that childhood hunger is associated with a number of poor physical, mental and developmental outcomes. Fortunately, federal nutrition programs are effective in addressing hunger. Reams of research also highlight how federal nutrition programs improve the nutrition, health and well-being of children.

For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal nutrition program for low-income families that is known to reduce poverty, improve the economy, improve food security and encourage healthier eating. 

However, the monthly benefit for the average SNAP recipient is a mere $127 per month, and 80% of SNAP benefits are spent within two weeks of receipt, leaving many children hungry by the end of the month. While SNAP provides a lifeline to help my families buy food, even before the pandemic many of the families I care for shared how their benefits did not last through the month. Now with rising food prices and job losses, increasing the maximum SNAP benefit is more critical than ever.

Nearly 22 million low-income children participate in the National School Breakfast and Lunch Program (NSBLP) each day. School-aged children and families who benefit from the NSBLP and Afterschool Meal Programs have since lost 2 to 3 meals per day with school closures. 

While many school districts have done an excellent job of providing meals to children in the face of school closures, these methods cannot scale up to reach millions of children who rely heavily on school meals each day. In particular, I see how rural families face particular challenges travelling long distances to pick up meals from sites. 

I also worry about my families who do not have transportation. The school district in which I live and care for patients, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, N.C., has been providing a mobile meal service through which the Child Nutrition Department delivers 15,000 meals per day via buses and vans to various apartment complexes and mobile home parks. 

While meal delivery via school buses is an innovative model, these meals do not feed an entire household, may not provide sufficient nutrition for growing bodies and miss certain households not in the catchment area.

Families that scraped by before the pandemic are finding themselves frequently visiting food pantries and food banks, often overwhelming the capacity of the charitable food system. While the food system faced challenges before the pandemic, often due to long-standing racial inequities, novel complications have bubbled to the surface. 

According to Feeding America, 41% of food banks in early April were already reporting a critical shortfall in funding due to the surge in need. Unfortunately, the charitable food system is still important and necessary for some to feed their families, but the current crisis has widened the hunger gap with shortages of donated food and volunteer workers.

To ensure our nation’s children don’t go hungry during these unprecedented times, key actions for Congress to take include raising the maximum SNAP benefit by 15%, increasing the minimum monthly benefit from $16 to $30 a month, and stopping the implementation of rules that would remove SNAP benefits from millions of people. 

Urge the Senate and the Administration to enact a COVID-19 recovery package that continues to provide nutrition and other needed assistance to struggling individuals and families. Write an opinion-editorial or letter to the editor. Share these asks on social media. 

The time to act on behalf of child hunger is now. Children are depending on us. 

Send in your COVID-19 pandemic story, and we may share it here and on our social media channels. https://bit.ly/2XVvJIu

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

About the Author

Kimberly Montez, MD, MPH, FAAP

Kimberly Montez, MD, MPH, FAAP, is a general pediatrician, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Wake Forest School of Medicine and Director of the Pediatric Residency Advocacy Program. She serves as the Vice Chair of the Executive Committee for the Council on Community Pediatrics.