COVID-19 and children: An ongoing nutrition crisis 


May 26, 2021

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of five blog posts examining how the coronavirus pandemic has affected children, youth, and young adults. 

When COVID-19 struck, hunger among children increased sharply. By March of this year, up to 8.8 million children lived in households reporting that their children did not have enough to eat in the past 7 days. Before the pandemic, in December of 2019, 1.1 million children were in households in which children did not have enough to eat at some point in the previous 30 days. 

Lack of enough nutritious food has been measured in different ways. Before the pandemic, the most common measure was food insecurity, defined as inability to afford consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. The U.S. Department of Agriculture annually surveys whether households have experienced this within the previous year. During the pandemic, the Census Bureau surveyed people frequently, and asked the much more immediate question of whether they had enough to eat in the past week. In April of this year, 11 percent of adults living with children reported their households sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the past week; it was 7 percent in households without children. 

Portrait of a boy in mask at home

In April of this year, 11% of adults living with children reported their households sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the past week

In 2019, the rate of food insecurity was the lowest in over 20 years according to Feeding America. A major public health issue for decades, there are a slew of negative outcomes for children associated with living in a household without consistent access to nutritious foods.  

Nutritional status affects many aspects of a child’s well-being. Food insecurity is one of the biggest risk factors for negative health outcomes and developmental delays. Even though this measure shows less immediate and acute lack of food than the food scarcity measured in the Census Bureau surveys during the pandemic, food insecurity in households is associated with poorer child health and development. Children in households that lack enough nutritious food in the first three years of their lives are more likely to be hospitalized and develop anemia and asthma. As they grow older, they are likely to repeat school grades, experience impairments in language and motor skills, and have social and behavioral problems.  

Before the pandemic’s onset, about one in seven children lived in a food insecure household. In 2020, that number climbed all the way to one in five; in 2021 it is about one in six. These statistics obscure deep disparities across social determinants, especially since those who have been impacted most were often already food insecure and were plunged further into poverty and unemployment – two major risk factors for being food insecure. Racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and families with young children are among the most vulnerableA sample of families with children under age 4 surveyed at Boston Medical Center during the pandemic found that 38.5 percent of families were food insecure, up from 35.3 percent prior to the pandemicCenter on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis found that Black and Latino adults were more than twice as likely as white adults to report in late March 2021 that their household didn’t get enough to eat in the last seven days:16 percent each, compared to 6 percent of white adults. 

Many families who had never needed assistance found themselves struggling. Military families were one of the groups that began to flock to food banks in numbers never seen before. A similar scenario occurred for families whose children relied on in-person lunch benefits that stopped when children were not getting in-person education and found aid delayed by disjointed delivery systems that have placed a lot of pressure on local food banks to meet the need.  

However, as assistance ramped up, through cash payments to many families and nutrition benefits delivered through SNAP and debit cards to replace in-school meals, hunger has been declining. Last summer’s distribution of food aid through Pandemic EBT cards has been estimated at lifting about 3 million children out of hunger.   

The nutritional crisis is a central part of Biden’s transformative approach to social aid and welfare policy, the implications of which are discussed in the conclusion of this series.