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Hungry with children: 1 in 3 U.S. families with kids don't have enough food

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Demand for food banks has surged amid the pandemic, but the issue of food insecurity is hitting one group of Americans worse than others: Families with children. 

One in three families with kids is experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic, double the rate since 2018, and a higher proportion than at the peak of the Great Recession, according to a new analysis from The Hamilton Project, which examined Census data. By comparison, about 1 in 4 households is food insecure, the analysis found. 

Food insecurity is defined as a lack of sufficient food for maintaining a healthy and active life, as well as a lack of resources to obtain more food, the Hamilton Project said. At its worst, it includes hunger and a significant disruption in food consumption, such as missing out on meals. 

The findings come as a key program that provides food aid for children is slated to end on September 30. The pandemic EBT, a food-stamp program that replaces missed meals at schools closed by the coronavirus pandemic, helped lift as many as 3.9 million children out of hunger by providing as much as $400 per child, depending on the state, according to an earlier study from the Hamilton Project.

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"The people who have been hit hardest are low-income families with kids," said Lauren Bauer, a fellow at the Hamilton Project who studies safety net policies. "These families have just been whacked in every possible way. No one is coming to rescue them."

Many of the families experiencing food insecurity are still working, but often in low-wage jobs, such as "essential" workers who are employed at grocery stores. When schools closed this spring, that added to the demands and stresses of their lives, including the loss of school meals. 

The school meal problem

While schools continued to serve free meals during the pandemic, the majority of schools saw a drop of 50% or more in the number of meals they served, USA Today reported last month. That's because it's difficult for some families to get to a school during the day when parents are working while others may lack transportation to the school. Others may worry about the risk of infection by visiting a pick-up site.

"A lot of essential workers are low-wage working parents," Bauer noted. "How could they pick up prepared meals if they were working at the grocery store?"

Those problems may continue this fall, with nearly three-quarters of the nation's biggest 100 school districts resuming classes remotely. Millions of low- and middle-income children in cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago may be at risk of rising hunger as the program comes to an end on September 30. Across the nation, roughly 20 million children depend on schools for free lunches.

Food insecurity is tied to the condition of the broader economy, with rates increasing as the economy weakens. But the COVID recession has hit lower-income workers especially hard, in part because they tend to work in jobs that can't be done remotely, compared with white-collar workers who can continue their jobs from their laptops at home. 

As the economy's recovery slows, it's unclear whether the pandemic EBT benefit will be extended. "It is definitely not good," Bauer said of the program's unclear future. "Families with children are going to suffer because pandemic EBT isn't going to be extended, and schools aren't open."

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