By Dr. Kimberly Montez
While the pandemic has wreaked havoc on everyone’s lives, it has been particularly challenging for low-income families with children — like the families I see every day as a pediatrician in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Now more than ever, this pandemic has exposed the inequities of childhood hunger in the backyard of our First World country. Families that struggled with hunger before the pandemic have been disproportionately impacted by job losses, childcare closures, and an overwhelmed charitable food system.
Even before the pandemic, food insecurity rates were unacceptably high among households with children. Now, in a recent national survey, 42% of respondents with children reported that they worry about running out of food.
It is well-established that childhood hunger is associated with a number of poor physical, mental, and developmental outcomes. Fortunately, federal nutrition programs are effective in addressing hunger. Reams of research also highlight how federal nutrition programs improve the nutrition, health and well-being of children.
For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal nutrition program for low-income families that is known to reduce poverty, improve the economy, improve food security and encourage healthier eating. However, the monthly benefit for the average SNAP recipient is a mere $127 per month, and 80% of SNAP benefits are spent within two weeks of receipt, leaving many children hungry by the end of the month. While SNAP provides a lifeline to help my families buy food, even before the pandemic many of the families I care for shared how their benefits did not last through the month. Now with rising food prices and job losses, increasing the maximum SNAP benefit is more critical than ever.
Nearly 22 million low-income children participate in the National School Breakfast and Lunch Program (NSBLP) each day. While many school districts did an excellent job of providing meals to children in the face of school closures, it is challenging to scale up these methods to reach millions of children who rely heavily on school meals each day. I see this each summer as communities strive to work together to meet the nutritional needs of children living in households with food insecurity. In particular, I see how rural families face particular challenges traveling long distances to pick up meals from sites. I also worry about my families who do not have transportation.
While the school district in which I live and care for patients (Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, N.C.), as well as Second Harvest's Providence Community Meals program, provides mobile meal services to various apartment complexes and mobile home parks, not all who are in need are able to be served through these innovative mobile models.
Families that scraped by before the pandemic have found themselves frequently visiting food pantries and food banks. While the food system faced challenges before the pandemic, often due to long-standing racial inequities, novel complications have bubbled to the surface.
To adequately address our nation’s hunger crisis requires that government, non-profits, and business communities work together.
To ensure our nation’s children don’t go hungry, key actions for Congress to take include raising the maximum SNAP benefit by 15%, increasing the minimum monthly benefit from $16 to $30 a month, and stopping the implementation of rules that would remove SNAP benefits from millions of people.
Additionally, soon Congress will be charged with reauthorizing child nutrition programs, as they are required to do every five years. By passing strong Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) legislation that strengthens child nutrition programs, especially during out-of-school times when children are hard to reach, Congress can help ensure children have the nutrition they need to thrive. Reach out to your member of congress to urge the passage of a strong CNR bill.
The time to act on behalf of a hungry child is ALWAYS right now. Children are depending on us.
Learn more about Feeding America's Child Nutrition Priorities.
Dr. Kimberly Montez, MD, MPH, FAAP, is a general pediatrician, educator, child health advocate, and health services researcher with a passion for promoting health equity. In her position as Assistant Pediatrics Program Director with Wake Forest School of Medicine, she leads the residency advocacy curriculum and mentors residents in scholarly, impactful advocacy projects. Recently, Dr. Montez was a contributing researcher to: Screen and Intervene: A toolkit for Pediatricians to Address Food Insecurity published by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Food Research Action Center.