Our Economy Is Booming, So Why Are Kids Still Going to Bed Hungry?

Food security has improved in the years following the Great Recession, but anti-hunger groups say too many kids are still at risk.
A child eats dinner at the Union Rescue Mission homeless shelter in Los Angeles. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Sep 21, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

In 2009, when the economic devastation of the Great Recession was most widely felt, one in four American children struggled with hunger, according to a USDA report released at the time that President Obama called “unsettling.” As unemployment shot up after the housing collapse, the number of Americans enrolled in the food stamp program hit record high after record high. The richest nation in the world was facing a hunger crisis—and children were among the most vulnerable.

At the tail end of the Obama administration, things are beginning to look better on the hunger front: According to the USDA, there are 8 million fewer food-insecure Americans than there were in 2009. While childhood hunger rates have also improved, two new reports make the case that they have by no means improved enough—and that the federal government can and should do more to ensure that America’s youths are fed. Last year’s gains “don’t quite get us back to where we were, and where we were wasn’t good enough,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center, an anti-hunger nonprofit.

On Tuesday, FRAC published an analysis of Gallup polling data on “food hardship” from 2015 that found that one in five households with children does not have enough to eat.

“These numbers really illuminate what we see on the ground in the community every day, that so many of the people we serve are working hard and spread thin,” Nancy E. Roman, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.’s Capital Area Food Bank, wrote in an email. The FRAC report found the food hardship rate for households with children in the District of Columbia was double that of households without kids. “They’re parents working long hours at minimum wage jobs to provide for their kids and single mothers working multiple jobs just to keep the household afloat.”

Jobs aren’t just a concern for parents of children who may be facing hunger, as another report published in September by the Urban Institute showed. A series of interviews with food-insecure teens across the country indicate that as hungry children get older, they take on burdens similar to those of their parents: sacrificing their own nutrition so younger siblings can eat, taking on any work they can find, and putting themselves at risk by breaking the law to pay for the next meal.

“You start to get worried...like your family is in danger,” a teen boy from Portland, Oregon, told the institute. “They won’t have enough food. [You] start to want to get jobs to provide for basic needs.”

The FRAC report notes that some nutritional programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (as food stamps are now known) and the free school breakfast program, are underused. One in four people eligible for SNAP enrolls in the program, and fewer than half of children who qualify for the free breakfast sign up to receive it. But Weill stressed that anti-hunger programs alone cannot solve the problem.

“There’s not quite enough attention to the importance of wages and unemployment,” he said. According to a recent paper published by The Century Foundation, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, as Fight for $15 organizers have demanded, would help 1.2 million families become food secure.