How to Address Child Hunger and Food Insecurity in Your Community
Living in a rural area, children may be surrounded by farmland and crops for miles on end. But in a cruel, ironic twist, many of these families face hunger and do not have access to any of the food that they can see from right outside their windows. Economic shifts and technological advancements have resulted in workers who once farmed these lands losing their jobs. These communities also often lack grocery stores where families can purchase healthy meals for children.
How then can advocates and social service workers help ensure that families and vulnerable children have enough to eat? That was the conundrum facing Jeremy Everett, founder and executive director of the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, a research and innovation project at Baylor University that is dedicated to creating hunger-free communities.
Research from field sites across Texas indicated the need for different strategies when addressing the challenges faced by children in urban and rural communities, particularly during summer months. While children and families in urban areas could be encouraged to visit congregate meal sites run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — sometimes housed at schools, churches or nonprofits — people in rural areas often live too far away. And providing extra monetary benefits through food assistance programs has little impact in areas with nowhere to shop for groceries.
In partnership with the USDA, the Collaborative launched the Meals-to-You program in 2019. The program served 4,000 kids in 20 different school districts in Texas, providing them a box of 15 meals and snacks each week. The reaction from families, communities and school districts was positive, and the USDA asked the Collaborative to expand the program to New Mexico and Alaska this past summer.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
“When the pandemic hit, the USDA called us asking if we could scale this program up nationwide immediately because of all the school closings,” Everett said. “They knew that rural school districts were not equipped to handle providing food to kids.”
The Impact of COVID-19 on Hunger and Food Insecurity
Food insecurity and hunger are long-standing problems facing families throughout the United States. According to the USDA, approximately 10.5 million households were food insecure at some point in 2019, meaning they were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources. More than 1 in 7 households with children were affected by food insecurity that year. And 361,000 children lived in households in which one or more child experienced very low food security, where normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced at times during the year.
A report by the Urban Institute that describes how families were fairing with food security during the month of May following the onset of the pandemic (PDF, 799 KB) indicates an uptick in the number of households facing food insecurity. According to the report:
- 1 in 5 parents living in households with children experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days.
- 1 in 4 adults whose families experienced employment disruptions faced food insecurity.
- Rates of food insecurity in Black and Hispanic adults’ households were double that of their white peers.
Everett notes that most people who experience hunger and food insecurity on a regular basis are often underemployed, meaning that they are working but not earning enough to pay for all of their living expenses. Employment in the low-wage sector can come with inconsistent hours, forcing adults to piece together multiple jobs in order to provide for their families and make trade-offs in terms of what they spend their money on.
For millions of families throughout the United States, the pandemic has only exacerbated that volatility. In a survey on the economic fallout of COVID-19 from the Pew Research Center released in September, about a quarter of adults said they or someone in their household lost a job because of the pandemic, while one-third said that they or someone in their household had to take a paycut. Lower-income households were harder hit, with about 56% of adults in that income bracket who lost a job due to the pandemic reporting that they are still unemployed, while 42% of middle- and upper-income adults who lost a job have not returned to work.
The survey also underscores the challenges that families with lower incomes have faced affording food since the COVID-19 outbreak began: Approximately 37% of adults in lower-income households reported receiving government food assistance, and 35% of adults in lower-income households had gotten food from a food bank or charitable organization.
Paul Gaither, director of marketing and communications at Central Texas Food Bank, said that his organization has seen an unprecedented demand for services, with anywhere from 75% to 220% increases in the number of people coming to specific locations. And two-thirds of their client base has a job or has someone in their household with a job.
“A huge percentage is just working poor — people who are working their butts off out there, but the way things are, they just can't make ends meet, especially if they have family,” he said.
School closings have also been a significant factor for children who rely on breakfast, lunch and afterschool programs for meals. In Texas alone, approximately 60% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals during the school day.
“Kids are specifically hurt from the pandemic because they haven’t been at school, so the consistent access to food that they do get during the school day has been disrupted,” Everett said.
As Feeding America outlines, hunger can have serious consequences for kids, including:
- Higher risks of hospitalization in early childhood
- Higher risks of health conditions such as anemia and asthma
- Social and behavioral issues that can affect schooling
- Developmental impairments in language and motor skills
“It affects their brains’ ability to think in patterns,” Everett said. “So, by the time they’re 5 and they’re in elementary school, they can’t fathom that B always follows A in the alphabet or that 2 always follows 1 when they’re counting. They can’t even learn their alphabet or learn how to count, much less read, write or do any kind of mathematical equation.”
Meeting the Needs of Children in Rural Communities During the Pandemic
In partnership with the USDA and several vending companies, the Baylor Collaborative expanded the Meals-to-You program to more than 40 states this summer, serving nearly 300,000 kids on the free and reduced-price lunch program. The scaled-up program delivered two weeks worth of food per box, sometimes reaching children that lived as far as 300 miles away from a road system. But scaling up this program during a pandemic came with its challenges.
Supply chain disruptions made it difficult for the food companies who assembled the boxes to acquire the amount of food necessary to create millions of meals. Meals also needed to be compliant with USDA regulations and nutrition guidelines and contain shelf-stable food since the boxes were being mailed through traditional shipping mechanisms. The program was shipping thousands of boxes of food to rural areas that typically did not receive such a high volume of shipments.
“UPS might have a distribution facility where they have one person who works the facility because it’s typically light work,” Everett said. “All of a sudden, a couple of 18-wheelers pull up full of boxes of food that need to be delivered by that UPS facility within the day.”
Despite these challenges, the strong partnerships and collaboration of the stakeholders involved ultimately resulted in more than 30 million meals being delivered to children in need. And at the end of the summer, the Baylor Collaborative transitioned into helping schools that are closed run their own similar programs.
6 Strategies to Help Address Hunger and Food Insecurity at a Community Level Return to anchor link
The Meals-to-You program is a large-scale way to help to address hunger and food insecurity. But there are opportunities at the community level to make a difference if people look for them, especially as the pandemic disrupts traditional systems of addressing this issue.
“The volunteer labor force is critical to food bank operations and has always been sort of a core part of our business model. It’s how we’re able to be so efficient and get so much food out, so cost effectively, to communities that we serve,” said Celia Cole, an expert in food and nutrition policy at Feeding Texas. “So when COVID hit, and we saw a lot of the volunteers sort of disappear overnight, it was very difficult for food banks to keep up.”
How can you help work alongside advocates and helping professionals like social workers to end hunger and address challenges presented by the pandemic? Everett, Cole and Gaither offer their suggestions below.
Donations allow organizations to purchase exactly what they need.
For people that have the means, Gaither says that the number-one thing organizations like his need are donations. Food banks need to purchase more food than ever to meet the needs of a higher volume of people. Monetary donations allow organizations to purchase exactly what they need for those who come to them. They also help to cover the costs of relying on paid labor to fill volunteer shortages, which have put a financial strain on many organizations.
Organizations need healthy volunteers who are committed to regularly participating.
Cole noted that the volunteer base at her food bank had typically consisted of seniors, but organizations need healthy volunteers from low-risk communities to step in. A lot of effort and energy is put into training, so volunteers who are committed to regularly showing up are important. Both Cole and Gaither suggest searching online to find available volunteer opportunities, which can include cooking, gardening, packing, distribution and clerical work.
Calling or writing an email to your representative can send an important message.
The lowest-effort way to make a difference is to contact your elected officials, explained Cole. Congress is debating how to help families in need. Showing your support for food assistance programs and temporary relief programs by calling or emailing your congressional representatives will send a message that the community is concerned about food insecurity and hunger.
Families facing food insecurity know best what can make a difference.
The nonprofit sector, the government sector, faith communities and the corporate sector all need to be involved in order to address systemic hunger. But Everett points out that families with lower incomes often know how to solve their own hunger better than anybody else. Amplifying these voices to ensure they are part of decision-making coalitions and have a seat at the table can help guarantee that the right solutions are put forward.
Many people don’t know about the benefits offered through food assistance programs.
Food assistance programs only work if people use them, but many people who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, are not aware that they meet the requirements. Similarly, school districts may be unaware of the benefits offered through the free and reduced-price lunch program. Find avenues to teach families who might be vulnerable about temporary relief, and check in to make sure schools are offering these meal programs.
People in need of temporary assistance shouldn’t be made to feel embarrassed.
Even if people are eligible, food programs can carry stigma that may prevent people from seeking them out. There are workarounds, Everett says. For adults, emphasize the fact that this is temporary assistance and note economic benefits to the entire community: Some grocery chains have told him the program accounts for 10% of jobs. For kids, think about how you deliver support: Encourage schools to serve breakfast first period for everyone, so kids don't feel singled out as needing assistance.
Still, stigma will be a significant challenge to overcome.
“We're seeing so many people who never thought they'd have to turn to any sort of assistance programs coming to us these days, and it has to be really, really hard for them,” Gaither said.
But no matter their circumstances, Gaither says the priority is to offer support.
“You don’t make any assumptions about anybody because you never know what somebody is going through,” he said.
How the Social Workers of Today and Tomorrow Can Make a Difference
Hunger is a systemic issue that is interconnected to larger systemic issues such as economic injustice. And the fact that racial minority households are more likely to experience hunger and poverty — and many working adults cannot afford to feed their families — highlights that the systems in this country don't work for everybody, Everett points out.
“We’re not going to volunteer our way out of this,” Everett said. “This is going to take our best leaders, our brightest thinkers and researchers and our most committed public servants to really get in here, figure this out and work hard to leave the world a more just place than we found it.”
The social work discipline offers students the chance to lead systemic change by learning how to listen to people from all walks of life, create collective assessments and translate those assessments into effective action.
“We talk about people being a voice for the voiceless, but most people can speak for themselves,” Everett said. “We just have to choose to listen to them.”
The following section contains tabular data from the graphic in the post. Return to anchor link
Percentage of Adults in Need of Food Assistance Since the Pandemic Began by Income Level
|Income Status||Percentage who had gotten food from a food bank or organization||Percentage who received government food assistance|
Source: Minkin, R., Parker, K., & Bennett, J. (2020, September 24). Economic Fallout From COVID-19 Continues To Hit Lower-Income Americans the Hardest. Retrieved October 07, 2020. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/
Citation for this content: Baylor University’s online master’s in social work program.