One of the most heartbreaking parts of the pandemic, in addition to the lives lost, has been its impact on children. School closures and remote learning are negatively impacting both kids' educational success and their mental health, but that's not all. Of children who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, just 15% have actually been getting them, according to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by the Brookings Institution. In June, the Census Bureau asked households that reported having insufficient food how often children under 18 years old "were not eating enough because we just couldn't afford enough food." "16.5 percent of households with children reported that it was sometimes or often the case that the children were not eating enough due to a lack of resources during the week of June 18-23 2020," the Brookings Institution found. That's 5.5 times the 2018 rate of 3%.
That means child food insecurity has reached record levels, with 13.9 million children not getting enough to eat in June—about 18% of all children in the United States. That's 2.7 times more than the number of children living in a household characterized by child food insecurity at the peak of the Great Recession in 2008, which was 5.1 million, according to Brookings. Schools across the country have also reported distributing far fewer free or reduced-price meals since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tucson Unified School District in Arizona served about 35,000 meals a day before the pandemic, NPR reported, but that number has dropped by almost 90%. Lindsay Aguilar, the district's food services director, told NPR it's "disheartening" because 70% of families in the district qualify for free or reduced-price meals. School districts in Texas are also feeding a fraction of the students they served before the pandemic, according to the Texas Tribune. For example, the Pflugerville Independent School District outside of Austin, told the Tribune it's serving 10,000 students a week compared with 125,000 it served at the same time last year. This even though more families than ever have applied for unemployment and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in the state. One Texas mom named Jennifer Gradel told the Tribune that she would have to walk five miles round trip to pick up meals for her three teenagers, which she's considered doing now that they're attending school remotely at home. She receives federal benefits, but the family is short about 30 meals per week by the end of the month since the kids are home for the entire day. Child food insecurity isn't a new issue—it's just been worsened by the pandemic, when many parents can't get to schools to pick up free or reduced-price meals. Some school districts have started delivering meals to students' homes by bus, but most are not. In her analysis of the recent Census Bureau data, Lauren Bauer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, called for at least a 15% increase in the SNAP maximum benefit "in response to evidence of surging food prices and unprecedented levels of food insecurity among all households and among children." Bauer noted that a 32% increase to the SNAP maximum benefit "would bring benefit levels for a family of four with school age children to be in line with" the USDA's Low-cost food plan. She also called for Congress to expand two programs it introduced at the start of the pandemic—SNAP Emergency Allotments (EAs) and P-EBT—that would help feed more families and children. "EAs should be reauthorized to explicitly provide EAs to households eligible for the maximum benefit, which would allow 5 million children to benefit from additional resources to purchase food for households that have thus far been excluded from the program," she wrote. "Around 14 million children require immediate nutrition assistance, and there are effective policy levers to pull." If you want to help children and families dealing with food insecurity in your community, contact your local food bank to see what it needs specifically.