Food insecurity rates in the United States spiked after the 2008 recession, affecting about 20% of households with children. It took almost ten years for those rates to improve just 5%.
In 2020, as COVID-19 sparked fear that the pandemic could cause a similar increase in childhood hunger and poverty, Congress responded by adding billions of dollars into programs that expanded food aid programs in the United States.
Those expansions helped families get fed at the highest rates that the country had seen in twenty years.
In 2021, food insecurity for households with children fell to 12.5%, according to the Agriculture Department. Child poverty rates fell as well from 9.7% in 2020 to 5.2% in 2021, according to the Census Bureau.
Now, two years later, many advocates for food aid programs are worried that U.S. kids could be coming close to falling off a “hunger cliff” as COVID-era food aid programs begin to have budget cuts or completely come to an end.
February was the last month that low-income families could receive an extra $95 a month or more from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 32 states and Washington, D.C.
The cuts will impact more than 30 million people who are enrolled in SNAP, in those states, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Among the states where recipients are facing cuts are California and Texas, which have greatest number of people on SNAP, at 5.1 million and 3.6 million.
The extra money put forth in 2020 was always temporary and intended to stop once the Biden administration declared an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is planned for May 2023.
Congress traded the extra “temporary” benefits for a new, smaller “permanent” program that will fund a summer school lunch program for low-income families.
What makes this news even harder to swallow is the current state of inflation in the U.S. that seemingly has no end in sight.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Lisa Davis, senior vice president of No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit working to end childhood hunger told Grid.
“We talk a lot about evidence-based policymaking, and during the pandemic, we were able to take policies we’ve been talking about for decades and put them into action,” she said. “The evidence shows that they’re incredibly effective, and to see them go away is really heartbreaking.”
Removing food aid programs does not just increase the rate of food insecurity — defined as a lack of consistent access to enough quality food — but also can be detrimental to children in other ways, including their physical and mental health.
Developmental delays in young kids, increased risk asthma or diabetes, poor academic performance and even decreased lifetime earning potential later in life are just a few of the possible outcomes for children suffering from food insecurity.
“There’s so much research showing hunger and poverty have a profound and permanent impact on a child’s trajectory,” Davis continued.
A major change that food aid programs put into place during the pandemic provided was an expansion of the safety net for those eligible, removing some of the factors that could disqualify a family for benefits.
“What we did in the pandemic was actually reverse that; the default became to include people,” David said, making it easier for families to get money or food assistance. “That made a huge difference.”
As the last of the programs begin to roll back, families are already reeling from the effects, especially as inflation continues to drive up the grocery bills.
The expanded Child Tax Credit payments expired at the end of 2021, leading to an increase in food hardship in 2022. By mid-year, food insecurity rates in families went up 25% compared with late 2021, one study found.
Black and Hispanic families were hardest hit, according to findings, with many reporting greater difficulty affording enough or higher quality food, “along with visiting food banks or pantries more frequently now that monthly payments had stopped.”
Some food banks across the U.S. are already under more pressure after the food aid program rollbacks.
“Food banks are already under immense strain,” Vince Hall, chief government relations officer for Feeding America, a nationwide food bank network, told Grid.
“Many continue to see demand for food assistance well above pre-pandemic levels while also facing continued supply chain disruptions, increased food purchase and transportation costs, and a decrease in the amount of food received from donations and from the federal government.”
Despite these alarming statistics, Congress doesn’t seem posed to re-thinking these changes to the well-rounded pandemic-era aid programs that helped so many kids from literally starving.
There have been a few attempts by senators from both parties to expand the Child Tax Credit. However, those budget negotiations failed last December.
The statistics don’t lie — more funding equals more kids fed. It’s pretty cut and dry common sense. Unfortunately, it seems that Congress has bigger fish to fry, and families in need may suffer because of it at probably one of the worst times.
A recent survey showed, 39% of U.S. adults reported having less savings than last year, and 10% who had no emergency savings last year still have none this year.
“People are having to choose between putting food on the table and paying rent,” Erin Pulling, CEO of Food Bank of the Rockies, told CBS Colorado. “We are seeing more people than ever needing help with food assistance.”
Of the food stamp cuts, Pulling said, “We’re bracing for it.”