New data shows that early predictions of coronavirus-inflicted hunger are coming true, disproportionately affecting communities of color. Food insecurity occurs in a household when a lack of resources leads to limited or uncertain access to enough food. A recent Brookings Institution survey found that more than 1 in 5 U.S. households were food insecure at the end of April.
The picture for young children is particularly frightening: Food insecurity affected an astonishing 40.9 percent of households of mothers with children age 12 and under. As the report notes: “It is clear that young children are experiencing food insecurity to an extent unprecedented in modern times.” The pernicious physical and psychological effects of child hunger may linger long after this crisis. Food insecurity in children can contribute to toxic stress, which can negatively impact brain development and increase the risk of depression, anxiety and substance abuse later in life. These effects are especially pronounced in the early years, though the effects of food insecurity are damaging at any age. Many of the traumas facing children across the country — shuttered schools and collapsing social routines — may be unavoidable in a pandemic. Hunger is avoidable.
Congress took a number of anti-hunger steps in March, including a temporary suspension of certain program requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would have been impractical in a pandemic. SNAP provides food assistance to about 40 million low-income Americans. Congress also authorized the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program to help families of children eligible for free or reduced school meals to access the value of those meals amid school closures. Most states have either already been approved to operate this program or have submitted proposals awaiting approval, though states still face administrative hurdles in making sure all those eligible can access the benefits.
These were good early steps, but the specter of hunger is now worse than many imagined. To meet the growing need, Congress should boost maximum SNAP benefits by 15 percent, as it did during the Great Recession, and increase the minimum benefit. Congress should also extend P-EBT into the summer, and as long as school closures interrupt access to breakfast and lunch. Most important, snapbacks in benefits should be tied to economic indicators — such as regional unemployment — rather than the public health emergency, as the economic crisis will likely outlast the pandemic.
The grim prospect of a hunger crisis looms large around the world, particularly in places where it may not be possible to effectively socially distance while avoiding starvation. The United States has the means and policy infrastructure to avoid such devastating trade-offs. Do we have the political will?