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Childhood Hunger in the United States: An Unacceptable Reality

Childhood hunger-food insecure-us children-snap-wic
Childhood hunger-food insecure-us children-snap-wic

Feeding the 7 million food-insecure children in the United States is right and smart. It will, however, require a shift in priorities.

Arturo Brito

President and CEO, Children’s Health Fund

Too many children in the United States know the pain of trying to fall asleep hungry.

Missing meals. Not knowing if their family will have enough money for food. Struggling to pay attention in school. Not having energy to play.

More than 7 million U.S. children experience these issues on a daily basis. They live in “food-insecure” homes with families lacking the resources to reliably feed everyone in their household with nutritionally adequate food.

Like other health inequities, children of color face even higher hunger rates: In 2020, Black and Latinx children were more than twice as likely to live in food-insecure households than non-Hispanic white children.

Addressing food insecurity

At Children’s Health Fund, we believe addressing food insecurity is integral to healthcare. Living with hunger isn’t just uncomfortable for children; it harms their growth, development, and education.

Food insecurity in childhood is linked to increased health problems like asthma, anemia, and tooth decay; mental health problems like depression and anxiety; and low academic performance. This and more add up to increased healthcare expenses as unhealthy children are more likely to use emergency rooms and be hospitalized. And with poorer educational attainment, food insecure children are less likely to become successful adults, a costly endeavor for our country.

Like other community-based organizations, our national network partners use emergency food pantries and community gardens, and connect with other food access programs — like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) — to help families cope. When we facilitate health convenings with families, youth, and healthcare providers in communities throughout the country, nearly half say that food insecurity is their main concern.

A preventable crisis

Childhood food insecurity is, however, a preventable crisis. It just requires intentional, coordinated shifts in policy. Here’s where we can start:

  • Pass federal legislation that provides free school meals for all students, regardless of family income. At least nine states currently provide free school meals to all school children. This should be federal policy, so that all children have this opportunity.
  • Decrease the administrative burden of existing federal programs that address food insecurity. Administrative burdens are barriers that individuals face when applying for or accessing benefits and programs. For example, programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC often come with extensive or inconvenient application requirements, such as in-person interviews, applications that are difficult to understand or are offered in a limited number of languages, and frequent recertifications. A large national study found that positive changes in administrative policies associated with SNAP applications resulted in a 28.5% increase in SNAP participation between 2007 and 2011. If we are sincere about these programs, we should make them easier to access.
  • Ensure access to nutritious food for children even when they are not in school. In January 2024, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its new Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program to allow low-income families to purchase nutritious food for their children during the summer months when school meals are not available. Nearly 21 million children could benefit. Unfortunately, at least 15 states have rejected the funding on ideological grounds. Programs that make children healthier and save dollars should be a priority.

Families experience hunger for a variety of reasons: jobs that don’t pay a living wage and high costs of housing, childcare, education, and healthcare. When we listen to communities most impacted by this issue, the message becomes clear: Families are doing their part to feed their children, but much more support is needed.

With relatively simple shifts in our policies, we can help make sure no child knows the pain of going to sleep hungry. Short of eradicating poverty, we should prioritize the health and well-being of all U.S. children by ensuring access to nutritious food.

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