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More than a year into the COVID-19 health crisis, millions of American families, especially those with young children, are still struggling to access nutritious and adequate food their families need. Throughout much of 2020, food insecurity rates in the United States were higher than they had been even during the prolonged “Great Recession,” due largely changes in economic circumstances, creating memorable images of long lines at food banks as these organizations faced both increased demand and reduced funding.
For many families, schools and child care centers had previously provided access to healthy meals for children through a variety of programs, including the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and the Free and Reduced-Priced School Lunch Program. The sudden closure of these facilities – and, in some places, continued closure into 2021 – meant a sudden disappearance of these sources at the same time that families faced economic disruptions (and, as was seen in the early days of the pandemic, panicked stockpiling of groceries led to real supply issues). However, an analysis by the Urban Institute found that by September 2020, fewer than one-third of parents with school-age children reported receiving some type of meals via their children’s schools, suggesting these outreach efforts were not reaching their targets.
Recent data from the Census Pulse data (a frequent survey of households since the COVID-19 crisis began, meant to gauge impacts) shows that food insecurity continues to be a significant issue. Nationwide, about 11 percent of households at both the national and South Carolina level reported “sometimes” or “often” not having enough to eat (as of February 27-March 1), with notably more negative impacts on families with children, non-White households, and households who have experienced employment loss. The below graphic shows these trends in South Carolina, with the statewide average of 11 percent depicted as a horizontal line for reference.
Food insecurity rates were significantly higher for Black non-Hispanic households, reaching 16 percent as opposed to rates of nine percent for both Hispanic (any race) and White non-Hispanic families. Nearly one in five households with children report this level of food insecurity, compared to just six percent of those without children.
Food insecurity is also intertwined with other challenges families are facing, though it is not always simple to tease out cause versus effect. In South Carolina, 37 percent of households who report not being caught up on their housing payments also report facing food insecurity. About 23 percent of households who report “not being able to stop or control worrying” on a near daily basis are facing food insecurity. As we have discussed in a recent paper, housing, food security, and mental well-being are all closely intertwined, and facing challenges in securing material needs can particularly cause mental health issues for parents.
There are silver linings and approaches that have helped address this unprecedented crisis. As ICS wrote in April of 2020, federal and state food programs were quick to adapt new approaches to connecting with families, innovating through contactless pick-up and drop-ffs, though the exact impact of these adaptations is unclear. Investments in federal COVID relief bill in December as well as the recently passed American Rescue Plan of 2021 also have the potential to significantly address food insecurity nationwide through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Pandemic-Electronic Benefits Transfer, and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
Notably, the week of March 14-20 is National Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) Week, honoring the impacts of this program which brings healthy foods to child care centers, homes, and afterschool programs as well as adults in day care. A recent study of child care centers in four states (Massachusetts, North Carolina Rhode Island, and South Carolina) found that centers which participated in CACFP reported fewer barriers to providing healthy foods to the children in their care than were those who did not participate in CACFP. Across all centers, the biggest barriers to providing healthy food were reported as cost (42 percent of respondents indicated) and children’s food preferences (19 percent). Cost was reported as a barrier at a much lower rate by those centers participating in CACFP. Previous research summarized in this study has found that participation in CACFP is linked to increased provision of healthy foods.
As children return to child care centers and schools in larger numbers this spring and in coming months, CACFP participants play an important role in supporting the goal of child nutrition. Combined with federal investments in programs that work, and the hope of positive economic growth as cases fall, there is light on the horizon for families who have faced food insecurity over the last year.