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A quarter of children being raised by grandparents face hunger

A new report finds the rate of food insecurity among grandparent-headed households with grandchildren is 60 percent higher than that of all households with children

Food for distribution at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne, Pa., in 2020. (Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post)

After Kathy Coleman and her husband became the primary caregivers to their six grandchildren in Baton Rouge, she found a way to temper her hunger pains.

She drank coffee.

Going without food became a necessary trade-off to ensure the children didn’t have to.

“I just couldn’t fathom eating something that one of my babies needed,” said Coleman, director of the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Information Center of Louisiana. “You make your coffee a little stronger.”

Eugene Vickerson also stepped in to care for grandchildren — one 7 years old, the other 16 months — when they came to live with him just as the housing crisis hit. He had a predatory mortgage with an adjustable rate, and soon his Atlanta home became unaffordable. For a time, until he could get his lender to modify his loan, he stopped paying the mortgage, partly to ensure the children were fed.

In households across the country, many grandparents are struggling to feed the children in their care. And inflation has only made that harder: The cost of food has jumped 11.2 percent in the past year, according to the September report on the consumer price index released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Opinion: We can — and should — end hunger before 2030

Coleman experienced what researchers call “food insecurity.” Such households are uncertain how to or unable to get enough food to meet all of their family’s needs, because they don’t have enough money or other resources.

The number of Americans who fall into this category is staggering: In 2021, about 34 million people lived in food-insecure households, Agriculture Department data shows.

Food insecurity is far worse for Americans who have taken over the raising of their grandchildren than those who haven’t, according to a new report by Generations United, an organization dedicated to helping what it calls “grandfamilies.”

I interviewed Coleman and Vickerson for a panel discussion on food insecurity. And they both illustrated one figure in the Generations United report that resonated with me, having been raised by my grandmother from the time I was 4, along with four siblings.

Roughly a quarter of grandparent-headed households experienced food insecurity between 2019 and 2020. That’s more than twice the national rate.

The stories the caregivers shared in the report are heartbreaking.

“Sometimes people would give us food that had been in their refrigerator for two weeks, but it was better than nothing,” said a Wyoming woman who raised two grandchildren. “Someone gave us a bag of oranges and we ate nothing but oranges for four days.”

Food security isn’t enough. Anti-hunger experts say the focus should be on nutrition security.

One finding, in particular, stood out: In 2019, only 42 percent of low-income, grandparent-headed households with grandchildren younger than 18 participated in the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

There are a lot of reasons these families don’t seek those benefits.

Grandparents who responsibly accumulated assets don’t always meet the low-income eligibility in their state to qualify for SNAP. About 46 percent of grandparents responsible for raising their grandchildren are 60 or older.

“Children shouldn’t go hungry because their caregivers were careful financially,” said Donna Butts, the executive director of Generations United.

One way to improve access to assistance would be to create a “child-only” SNAP benefit based on the needs of the child as opposed to household income, the report recommended.

Grandparents often aren’t aware they qualify for federal food assistance, because they mistakenly believe they must have legal custody of the children to qualify.

“I hear from the grandfamily caregivers that they don’t want to be a part of ‘the system,’” Keith Lowhorne, vice president of kinship with the Alabama Foster and Adoptive Parents Association, said in the report. “They worry that applying for food and nutrition programs would cause someone to come and take the children away if they don’t have legal custody, or go after the parents for child support, which would cause problems.”

Unlike many other public benefit programs, federal nutrition programs such as SNAP don’t require caregivers to obtain legal custody to receive aid.

The Biden administration held a summit on combating hunger and later released a 44-page report that included improving outreach and countering misconceptions about the government’s food programs.

We need to improve outreach for existing federal nutrition programs like SNAP and to better reach more grandfamilies and connect them to benefits that they’re eligible for and should be receiving,” said Alexandra Ashbrook, director of root causes and specific populations at the Food Research and Action Center, which contributed data to the report.

Biden hosts conference on hunger, announces $8 billion of commitments

But there’s another reason families don’t apply for SNAP benefits: embarrassment.

My grandmother, Big Mama, hated using food stamps, what SNAP was previously called. It wasn’t her fault my parents failed at parenting. Nonetheless, she felt shame in asking for help and would try to shop at times when she was less likely to see someone she knew.

She would try to slip the food stamps to the cashier without anyone in line behind her noticing. But even as a child, I could see the judgmental glares she received.

Eventually, she stopped reapplying for food stamps. The stigma was just too much for her. Somehow she made do with the money she had.

Whenever you may be tempted to judge families facing food insecurity and their need for assistance, think about Coleman and her strong cups of coffee.

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