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USDA: More children faced food insecurity in 2020 during pandemic

(WISH Photo, File)

(CNN) — Food insecurity among families with children rose in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic upended the U.S. economy, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released Wednesday.

Some 7.6% of households with children, nearly 3 million families, were unable at times to provide adequate, nutritious food for their kids last year, compared to 6.5% in 2019, the report found.

Also, more children faced very low food security, meaning they were hungry, skipped a meal or did not eat for a day because there was not enough money for food. Some 0.8% households with children, or 322,000 families, were in this situation last year, compared to 0.6% the prior year.

Among families with children, the entire household also suffered higher rates of food insecurity last year. Some 14.8%, or 5.6 million households, were in this situation last year, up from 13.6% in 2019.

Overall, however, the share of households contending with food insecurity remained the same in 2020 as the year before at 10.5%, or 13.8 million households, according to the report, which is released annually.

The pandemic also sparked a substantial increase in federal nutrition assistance and charitable aid. Congress bolstered the food stamp and other benefit programs and millions more Americans turned to food pantries for help.

The USDA report does not provide an analysis of how this spike in aid may have affected food insecurity, but advocates say it helped keep hunger at bay.

Lauren Bauer, fellow at the Brookings Institution, tweeted that “federal nutrition assistance & aid to make families whole did the job,” 

By contrast, food insecurity spiked in the years after the Great Recession, rising above 14% of households from 2008 through 2014, then sliding back to pre-crisis levels in 2019. The federal government’s response to that economic crisis was not as comprehensive.

Not every group in the United States fared as well in the pandemic, however.

The food insecurity gap between Black and White households increased. Some 21.7% of Black, non-Hispanic-led households faced food insecurity last year, up from 19.1% a year earlier. But the share of White, non-Hispanic-led households in this situation slid to 7.1%, down from 7.9% in 2019.

Insecurity increased in the South but declined in the Midwest. It also fell for women living alone and men living alone.

Spike in need for help

The pandemic fueled a surge in need across the nation, as millions of Americans lost their jobs and their ability to pay for food for themselves and their families.

Some 60 million people — or 1 in 5 U.S. residents — received charitable food assistance in 2020, an increase of 50% from the year before, said Emily Engelhard, managing director of research at Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization.

They lined up in their cars for miles outside food pantries waiting for a donation. Feeding America’s network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs distributed more than 6 billion meals last year, up 44% from 2019.

Federal response

In addition to providing three rounds of stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits and expanded tax credits, Congress sought to directly relieve the spike in need in several ways in its coronavirus relief packages. It allocated $850 million to boost The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides supplies to food banks, in two coronavirus relief packages in March 2020.

Lawmakers raised enrollees’ food stamp allotment to the maximum amount for their family size early in the pandemic, and then increased benefits by 15%, or about $27 per month per person, in late December.

They also created the Pandemic-EBT program, which provides benefits to children who normally receive free or reduced-price school meals but were studying remotely because of the coronavirus. States, however, were slow to roll out the complex measure.

In addition, the USDA used relief funds to create the Farmers to Families Food Box program that delivered nearly 167 million boxes of fresh food to struggling Americans and helped farmers sell their produce amid supply chain disruptions.

The agency recently announced a historic increase in food stamp benefits, starting in October. Assistance will jump 27% above pre-pandemic levels, on average, as part of the USDA’s update to the Thrifty Food Plan, which determines the benefit amounts of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the formal name for food stamps.

Lawmakers should do more to address hunger in America, especially now that enhanced pandemic unemployment benefits have ended, said Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center.

“We have seen how the pandemic has exacerbated the nation’s already growing hunger crisis,” Guardia said. “If not for the federal nutrition programs, the data released today would be even more troubling.”

Demand remains elevated in 2021

Though the economy has improved and more Americans are working, requests for food assistance is still higher than it was prior to the pandemic, according to Feeding America.

More than half of food banks are reporting demand either increasing or demand holding steady in July, compared to the previous month, according to the group’s most recent survey of its members.

Widespread coverage of food insecurity and of the increased usage of food pantries destigmatized the need to seek assistance to address hunger, Engelhard said.

“That really helped people feel more comfortable that they could turn to the charitable food system for help,” Engelhard said.

Congress’ enhancement of the child tax credit for 2021, which is expected to cut child poverty nearly in half this year, should also help ease food insecurity among children this year, said Dan Miller, an associate professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work.

Parents reported less trouble affording food and paying for household expenses after the first payment was sent on July 15, according to the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey.

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