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Pandemic makes childhood hunger worse experts say; inadequate food threatens children’s health

Over 390,000 kids receive SNAP benefits in Louisiana
Published: May. 19, 2021 at 7:46 PM EDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Experts say the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is worsening childhood hunger and that threatens children’s physical and mental health.

Elisa Muñoz is Executive Director of the New Orleans Food Policy Action Council.

“I would say that it’s dire. We’ve always had an issue, or we’ve historically had an issue with childhood food insecurity and hunger and the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased and exacerbated that problem,” said Muñoz.

The federal government defines food insecurity as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources.

And according to the organization, Feeding America, 1 in 4 children in Louisiana face hunger.

“Just think about if you miss lunch, you have a hard time the rest of the day, now imagine if not only do you miss lunch, but you miss breakfast and you’re not sure when dinner is coming and you go to bed hungry,” said Muñoz.

Hungry children are often unhealthy children.

Dr. Deborah Frank is a physician who is part of Boston University’s School of Medicine.

“Food is medicine,” said Dr. Frank.

The organization SciLine assembled Frank and two other scientists to discuss childhood hunger in terms of before and since the pandemic.

Dr. Eliza Kinsey of Columbia University was one of the panelists.

“Prior to the start of the pandemic in 2019, the household food insecurity rate was 10.5 percent and 13.6 percent among households with children. Since the pandemic started, we’ve seen estimates of food insecurity more than doubling to approximately 22 percent among all households and 28 percent among households with children,” Kinsey said.

Dr. Mariana Chilton of Drexel University says the consequences of being food deprived hurts society as a whole.

“It’s a loss of brain trust, the longer we allow children to be food insecure we are disinvesting and destroying the brain trust of America,” Chilton stated.

Dr. Frank says the impact can linger beyond childhood.

“Young adults and older adolescents who grew up in food-insecure households even though they might not be still food insecure have higher rates of suicidality, substance use, even trouble with the law,” she said.

Muñoz agrees.

“It really impacts them in so many ways; with behavior, with education, with sleeping,” said.

They say school meals and government programs like SNAP remain critical to the fight against childhood hunger.

The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services says there are 391,119 children (under 18) who are SNAP recipients out of a total of 891,012 recipients in the state.

Muñoz was asked if she thought the pandemic shed more light on the long-running problem of food insecurity in children.

“I do. I’ve had so many people contact us or just say to me in passing, I had no idea that it was this bad or this many people were hungry,” she responded.

Kinsey says as part of the solution disparities must be addressed.

“Racism, gender discrimination, imbalances in power, poverty, low wages and I think more focus on how food insecurity can be changed by attention to those structural causes is needed,” she said.

The White House says starting in July 90 percent of America’s families will begin getting up to $300 monthly for each child as part of the COVID-related American Rescue Plan.

Muñoz hopes the enhanced federal child tax credits that are part of COVID relief become permanent. “I certainly hope so. Data has shown that this will be one of the most impactful ways to raise families out of poverty,” she said.

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