2-year-old Elsa plays in the yard outside her home in McDowell County, West Virginia. McDowell is the state’s poorest county, with 43% of children growing up in poverty.
Food Insecurity in America Is Cutting Childhoods Short
Across America, boys and girls are experiencing childhood differently. Some are getting the love, care and protection they need to develop to their full potential. But far too many others are not. And the disparities are shocking.
Hunger, something that more than 1 in 6 children in America struggle with, is robbing too many children of the childhood they deserve. Among the nation’s poorest counties, alarmingly large numbers of children miss meals and go to bed hungry on a regular basis.
And while we know this is unacceptable, food insecurity rates for children across America remain high. 17% of all children live in households that lack access to adequate food sometime during the year - households that don't have enough nutritious food for every family member.
In its 2020 U.S. Complement to the Global Childhood Report, Save the Children takes a closer look at the major reasons why childhoods are ending too soon as measured by five factors, including food insecurity.
What Is the Definition of Food Insecurity?
Food insecurity is defined as limited or uncertain access to food. Food insecurity is a household-level economic and social condition of limited access to adequate food. It is distinct from hunger, an individual-level physiological condition that may result from food insecurity.[i]
How Many Children in the U.S. Are Food Insecure?
The USDA estimates that more than 11 million children in the United States live in food-insecure households as of 2018. That means that 1 in 6 children may not have consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. [ii]
Where in America Are Children Most and Least Protected from Food Insecurity?
Save the Children has examined data from more than 2,600 counties and county-equivalents in all 50 states to create a first-ever ranking of counties where children are most and least prioritized and protected from the factors that end childhood, including food insecurity.
In nearly every state, there are big gaps between the best and worst counties for children. Children living in the most disadvantaged counties are 3 times as likely to lack healthy food and consistent meals.
Over 1.6 million children in California and nearly 1.7 million children in Texas were at risk of hunger in 2017. New Mexico and Arkansas were the states with the highest child food insecurity rates: 24.1% and 23.6% respectively. This is more than twice the rates in Massachusetts and North Dakota.
Food Insecurity Rates by County
Across America, 84% of the counties where the most children struggle with hunger are rural and high poverty. Among the more than 2,600 counties examined, counties that ranked the lowest overall (in the bottom 50) are mostly rural, poor, concentrated in the south and are communities of color.
The highest food insecurity rate in the nation is in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, where 40% of children struggle with hunger. This is comparable to child food insecurity rates in Bangladesh and Peru, and higher than the rates in Egypt and Mali. Slope County, North Dakota has the lowest child hunger rate in the country – 6%.
To compare food insecurity rates by county, visit our U.S Childhood Report Comparison Tool.
Food Insecurity in the U.S. and Coronavirus
While the data in Save the Children’s report was collected before the coronavirus pandemic, there are many indications that conditions for the most marginalized children are being made worse by the pandemic.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity has increased. By the end of April 2020, more than one in five households in the United States, and two in five households with mothers with children 12 and under, were food insecure.[iii]
With 30 million children in the U.S. dependent on school for one or more of their meals each week, extended school closures and loss of family income mean food insecurity rates will continue to rise.
Globally, the pandemic could nearly double the number of people suffering acute hunger, totaling more than a quarter of a billion people by the end of the year.
The Case for Closing the Child Equity Gap
Every child deserves a childhood. That’s why Save the Children works in over 200 of the poorest communities in rural America – where we’re often the only child-focused nonprofit – helping hundreds of thousands of children each year.
We are also a leading advocate for children. We therefore call on policymakers at all levels of government to robustly support the welfare and development of all children, regardless of where they reside.
If childhood equity gaps were closed in all 50 states, there would be 3.5 million fewer food-insecure children in America. The number of children struggling with hungerwould fall by a quarter (26%).
In California, there would be 470,000 fewer hungry children and in Texas, there would be 460,000 fewer. Child food insecurity would drop by 35% in Michigan, North Dakota and West Virginia. It would drop 36% in Kentucky and 37% in Tennessee. And in Virginia, there would be 41% fewer hungry children.
We know this change is possible. Together, we can ensure every last child has the childhood – and future – they deserve.
[i] Feeding America. Map the Meal Gap 2019: A Report on County and Congressional District Food
[ii] 2020 U.S. Complement to the Global Childhood Report
[iii] The Brookings Institute
Photo credit: Victoria Zegler
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