The State of America's Children® 2020

Child Hunger and Nutrition

>>>The State of America’s Children 2020 – Child Hunger and Nutrition
The State of America’s Children 2020 – Child Hunger and Nutrition2021-05-03T21:13:03-05:00

Gaps in Meal Programs Leave Children Hungry

1 in 6


“The result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.” This was the message about 40 families received in letters from their Pennsylvania school district because their children owed $10 or more in school lunch debt. Threatening to send families to Dependency Court for being unable to afford school lunch or forgetting to refill their account is an extreme case of  lunch shaming, but it is not the only one. Schools across the U.S. have shamed families and children with lunch debt by taking hot meals away from students and throwing them away, forcing students without lunch money to eat a tuna sandwich as a “badge of shame,” trying to bar students with lunch debt from attending prom or graduation and firing employees for letting a student take food without paying.1

Children’s physical health and brain development depend on them being well-fed, particularly in the earliest years of life. Hunger and malnutrition jeopardize children’s health, development, education and career readiness. Yet more than 1 in 6 children—12.5 million—lived in food-insecure households in 2017, lacking consistent access to adequate food and placing them at an increased risk of obesity.2 More than 1 in 4 children were overweight or obese in 41 states and the District of Columbia in 2017 (see Table 10).

  • The percent of Black (25.6 percent) and Hispanic households with food-insecure children (24.3 percent) was nearly two times that of white households (13.2 percent) in 2016.3
  • In 2018, 63 percent of food-insecure households were in the labor force; 53 percent were households
    with full-time workers.4

The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs help keep children fed and ready to learn in the classroom without having to worry about being shamed for not having enough money for school meals.

  • During the 2017-2018 school year, 21.8 million children received free or reduced-price school lunch and 12.5 million received free or reduced-price breakfast (see Table 12).
  • During the 2018-2019 school year, more than 28,600 high-poverty schools serving more than 13.6 million students participated in the community eligibility option, allowing them to provide meals to every student without the administrative burden of collecting applications and meal fees. This is up from the more than 24,900 schools that participated and offered 11.8 million students meals during the 2017-18 school year. Community eligibility allows for more cost-effective school meal operations and reduces stigma associated with the program, enabling schools to invest time and resources in building stronger school nutrition programs that reach more students.5
  • Research shows that food insecurity leads to increased risk of mental health challenges, poor interpersonal skills, difficulty being engaged in the classroom as well as tardiness and absence from school. Students that participate in school breakfast, however, show improved behavior, attendance and academic performance.6

Hunger does not take a summer vacation, however, and many children that participate in school meal programs do not receive healthy meals during summer months (see Table 12).

  • In summer 2018, the Summer Food Service Program and the Summer Option through the National School Lunch Program served only 14 percent of children who received free or reduced-price lunch during the 2017-2018 school year.7
  • Federal agencies and community organizations have been piloting innovative strategies to address child food insecurity in the summer and barriers to accessing summer meal programs. Successful strategies include:
    • Mobile meal trucks and mobile food pantry programs to help remove barriers that prevent access to underserved areas.8
    • The USDA’s Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Demonstration Project which led to Summer EBT for Children Grants for nine states and tribal areas in summer 2017 and has been found to significantly reduce very low food security among children by one-third.9
    • No Kid Hungry’s summer meals texting service where caregivers can text ‘FOOD’ or ‘COMIDA’ to 877-877 to find free summer meals sites in their neighborhoods.10

Federal nutrition programs play a critical role in helping to reduce child hunger and must be strengthened to meet the needs of all children.

  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, helps feed 17 million children—nearly 1 in 4 (see Table 11). SNAP prevents children and families from going hungry, improves overall health, and reduces poverty among families receiving the benefit. SNAP participation is associated with educational advancement of children living in poverty and improvements in math and reading scores.11
  • SNAP lifted nearly 1.4 million children out of poverty in 2018.12 However, SNAP benefits averaged only $1.29 a person per meal for households with children.13 Nearly half of all families receiving SNAP in 2018 were still food-insecure.14
  • In FY2018, 3.8 million households had no income except for SNAP benefits, including 1.2 million households with children.15
  • The administration has continued to threaten proven food assistance programs like SNAP. Rather than weakening SNAP and reducing food assistance for millions of people, it is critical to strengthen and expand the program to better support the needs of children.
  • Through a simple change in how SNAP benefits are calculated—from the current USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan to USDA’s Low-Cost Food Plan which assumes higher quality of food and higher overall costs—SNAP benefits would increase by 31 percent and significantly improve SNAP’s anti-poverty and anti-hunger impact.16

No child should go hungry in the richest nation on earth. We must continue to build on the progress we have made in providing nutrition assistance to low-income children at home and in school and close participation gaps that leave children without safe and nutritious food.

Immigrant Children are America’s Children: Hunger

Fear and confusion—known as the chilling effect—over intentionally complex Trump administration “public charge” regulations are causing families to disenroll from or forgo health care, nutrition, public service and other economic support programs for which they are eligible.17 Families are afraid enrolling their children will alert immigration authorities to the presence of an unauthorized parent or spouse and expose the family to the threat of deportation. The legal fight over the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s public charge rule is well underway, and so too is the fight against the chill on the ground and in communities.18

Dr. Lanre Falusi, a pediatrician at Children’s National Health System, told The Atlantic that the public charge proposal affects nearly all the immigrant families she sees in her practice. “I’ll see a mom with a newborn, and sometimes … the mom is having trouble affording formula. I talk about programs that they might be eligible for. More and more, I’m having new parents decline, saying, ‘I’m not gonna sign up.’”19

This administration’s acts of cruelty are resulting in hungry children. Rodrigo Aguirre, a case manager with Catholic Charities, reports that families are avoiding benefits entirely to keep a low profile. “One time a family came in, and the kid was unmotivated. He had his head down the entire time,” he said. “The mom said, ‘We don’t have food stamps…so they didn’t have breakfast today.’”19