The State of America’s Children 2021 – Child Hunger and Nutrition2021-03-28T18:48:38-05:00

The State of America’s Children® 2021

Child Hunger and Nutrition

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Children need healthy food to grow, learn, and thrive. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, however, children in America went hungry at alarming rates. Institutional racism, low wages, and other inequities made it impossible for many families—especially Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous families—to put food on the table. At the same time, policymakers have refused to adequately fund nutrition programs to reach and feed all children in need. Millions of children entered this crisis without consistent access to nutritious food, leaving them especially vulnerable to hunger and harm.

In 2019, more than 1 in 7 children—10.7 million—were food insecure, meaning they lived in households where not everyone had enough to eat (see Table 10). These households struggled to afford and access healthy meals, forcing them to rely on low-cost food to feed their children, skip meals, or even go hungry.

  • Black and Hispanic children were twice as likely to live in food-insecure households as white children. Nearly 1 in 4 Black children (24.1 percent) and 1 in 5 Hispanic children (19.2 percent) lived in households that didn’t get enough food to eat in 2019, compared with 1 in 9 white children (11.0 percent).1
  • Younger children also faced a greater risk of hunger. Households with children under 6 were more likely to lack access to healthy food than households with children under 18.2
  • The majority of households experiencing hunger struggle to put food on the table even with full- or part-time employment. In 2019, 61 percent of households experiencing hunger were in the labor force; 51 percent had at least one full-time worker.With living expenses rising, wages stagnating, and systemic racism, food and other basic necessities are becoming increasingly out of reach for working families.
  • Lack of nutritious and healthy food is linked to low birth weight and birth defects, physical and mental health problems, oral health problems, and poor educational outcomes.4

School meal programs like the National School Lunch Program (NLSP) and the National School Breakfast Program (SBP) are a critical source of nutritious food for children experiencing hunger and poverty. Many children typically consume up to two full meals a day at school and too often, these are the only meals they can count on.

  • Nearly half of all public school students rely on free or reduced-price school meals to meet their daily nutritional needs.During the 2018-2019 school year, more than 21.6 million children received free or reduced-price school lunch, and 12.4 million received free or reduced-price breakfast (see Table 11).
  • While most schools are now serving free meals to all children regardless of income in response to COVID-19, a growing number offered universal meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) prior to the pandemic. During the 2019-2020 school year, nearly 30,700 schools serving 14.9 million children participated in community eligibility,allowing them to offer free meals to every student without processing applications or collecting meal fees. This is up from nearly 28,800 schools that participated during the previous school year. Serving meals to all students at no charge reduces administrative burdens and costs, enabling schools to invest time and resources in building stronger nutrition programs that reach more children.

Even during traditional school years, however, most children who receive free or reduced-price school meals cannot access them when schools are closed after school, on weekends, and over the summer. Prolonged school closures due to COVID-19 are now exacerbating the systemic gaps in federal nutrition support, leaving children without reliable access to healthy meals year round.

  • Only 1 in 15 eligible children received after school suppers through the At-Risk Afterschool Meals component of the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) on an average weekday in October 2019.7
  • In summer 2019, the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) through the NSLP reached only 1 in 7 children (13 percent) who received free or reduced-price lunch during the 2018-2019 school year (see Table 11). This marks the fourth year in a row that participation in summer nutrition programs declined.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—our nation’s largest federal nutrition program—helps connect children to healthy meals to supplement food budgets, improve health, and reduce poverty. Due to limited funding, however, SNAP benefits fall far short of meeting the need—and that need has only grown since the pandemic began.

  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helped feed 17 million children in Fiscal Year 2018—nearly a quarter of all children in America (see Table 12). SNAP participation is linked to improved health and educational outcomes .8
  • SNAP lifted nearly one million children out of poverty in 2019 and helps more children escape deep poverty than any other government program.9
  • In FY2018, 3.8 million households had no income except SNAP benefits, including 1.2 million households with children.10
  • Half of all families that received SNAP in 2019 were not able to get enough healthy food,11 however, because SNAP benefits were too low. Among households with children, monthly SNAP benefits averaged just $118 a person—or less than $4 a day.12

Federal nutrition programs like SNAP must be strengthened and expanded to support children’s well-being and success.

  • Calculating SNAP benefits using the Low Cost Food Plan rather than the current Thrifty Food Plan would increase SNAP benefits by 31 percent, improve SNAP’s anti-hunger impact, and lift 1.5 million children out of poverty.13
  • Boosting SNAP is smart economic policy, especially during recessions. Every $1 invested in SNAP generates $1.50 to $1.80 in economic activity and creates jobs.14

COVID-19 is Deepening America’s Longstanding Hunger Crisis

Child hunger was a crisis long before the COVID-19 pandemic—and it has only worsened since. Widespread school and child care closures have left millions of children without reliable access to affordable meals, while record job losses have made it even harder for families to keep food on the table at home. Now, child hunger is reaching dangerous new heights. As of February 2021, more than 1 in 7 adults with children (14.5 percent) reported that their children were not getting enough to eat15—more than five times the pre-pandemic rate (3 percent).16

Due to historic and systemic racism, children of color are going hungry at even higher rates. As of February 2021, more than 1 in 5 Black and Hispanic adults with children (22.8 percent and 20.6 percent, respectively) said their households were not getting enough to eat compared with 1 in 10 white adults with children (10.4 percent).17 If unemployment and poverty rates remain elevated, as many as 1 in 4 children—18 million in total—could be at risk of going hungry as a result of COVID-19.18 Without continued and expanded nutrition assistance during the pandemic and beyond, rising child hunger will devastate our children’s development and community success for years to come.