Still impacting the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic uncovered truths about the persistent impact of systemic racism in the 21st century. Yet even during a time of such uncertainty, child hunger saw historic lows. Pandemic relief efforts created access to food and began closing the gaps in hunger and food insecurity.
The pandemic exposed the world to the reality of the 10.7 million young people living in food-insecure households. Moreover, the pandemic subjected more than 1 million additional families to food-insecure conditions. In response, the federal government distributed Emergency Allotments (EA) to support its participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which helped to shrink the hunger gap:
- In 2020, at least 1 in 6 children lived in food-insecure households in 11 states and the District of Columbia, up from 14.6% or 1 in 7 children in 2019.
- From 2020 to 2021, there was a 3.3% decline in the number of children living in food-insecure households, from 16.1% to 12.8% or 11.7 million children to 9.3 million children (see Table 10).
- Pre-pandemic period, 36.7% of SNAP recipients were White in comparison to 26.3 and 15.9% of Black and Hispanic recipients, respectively28 .
- During the emergency waiver period of 2020, at the start of the pandemic, SNAP participation increased. White participants accounted for 37.7% of SNAP participation in comparison to 28.7% of Black participants. Hispanic participants decreased to 12.2%.
- SNAP helped feed over 15 million young people in FY2020, but fewer than 1.8 million young people in 2018.
- In 2020, SNAP was the only source of income for over 1 million families with children.
- 1 in 5 children under age 5 relied on WIC to support their development.
The growing decline in the number of young people facing food insecurity showed promise for a near future where young people are not hungry or nutrition deprived. Yet the expanded benefits under the Federal Public Health Emergency (PHE) ended in May 2023—even though many families, children, and young people still feel the physical and financial impacts of living in low-opportunity environments before and during the pandemic.
- In Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina, and Mississippi, the percentage of children living in food-insecure households exceeded national averages both before and after the pandemic (see Table 10).
- In School Year (SY) 2020-21, 19.6 million children received free or reduced-price lunches, while 8.8 million students missed out on free lunches (see Table 11).
- Despite monumental efforts by many school administrators to deliver school meals to students’ homes, 100 million fewer school breakfasts and 1.4 billion fewer lunches were served in SY 2020-21 compared to SY 2018-2019, the last full school year before the pandemic.
- SNAP, applauded for offering temporary student exemptions29 allowing college students to receive benefits during the pandemic, is set to phase out these benefits through eligibility redetermination. Students who received benefits before the pandemic must also undergo recertification.
- Children under six who are eligible for SNAP will also drop from the Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) program, which grants families allotments to compensate for school closures and decreased operations.
- Young adults aged 19-24, also experiencing housing insecurity, will no longer have access to meal services provided under the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).
As we continue recovering from the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, policymakers, community leaders, and other advocates for youth are needed now more than ever to defend young people’s food security as federal Public Health Emergency ends. The complete effects of the termination remain to be seen, but in states have ended their emergency assistance programs before May (Mississippi, Missouri, Georgia, and Florida), benefits fell by at least $95 per month per household30. The decrease in benefits coupled with already limited access to quality food options was the very condition that contributed to the millions of young people experiencing food insecurity before the pandemic. The expansion of nutrition assistance is critical to ensure that children and young people are accounted for when deciding who gets to eat.
Terms to Know:
Food insecurity is defined by the USDA as a state of being that reflects an individual or group of people’s reduced access to quality, varietal, and desirable food options. A distinction can be made between varying cases of food insecurity which may or may not be characterized by disrupted eating patterns or reduced food intake.31
This phrase is used to describe the period of time when the nation is collectively making efforts to resume pre-pandemic activities such as healthcare redeterminations and the ending of the Public Health Emergency. This phrase should not be assumed to reference the pandemic as over because we know that people are still feeling the impacts of a pandemic that began three years ago.
Low-opportunity (referencing community conditions):
Low-opportunity is used to describe communities characterized by conditions that create barriers for people in accessing the necessities of life such as quality foods and healthcare coverage. Related to the Social Determinants of Health, environmental barriers that limit opportunity for groups of people to be well in many areas of life.