The last time the government formally measured food insecurity nationally was in 2018, when about 25 percent of black households with children were food insecure. Today, the figure is around 39 percent, according to the latest analysis by the Northwestern economists, published this week. For Spanish households with children, the percentage in 2018 was almost 17 percent. Today it is almost 37 percent.
The rate for white households with children is considerably lower at 22 percent. Still, that’s more than double what it was before the pandemic, and much higher than it has been since the government began measuring food insecurity two decades ago.
“There is simply a terrible degree of food insecurity and it is clear that there is a disproportionate impact,” said Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy and programs for young children, at the Food Research & Action Center, a Washington advocacy group. “It is furious.”
When the earliest estimates of food insecurity for children came out, about six weeks after the pandemic, the numbers were so high that anti-hunger defenders and some economists thought they were wrong. But the early numbers have since been supported by other national surveys.
One large national at the end of April survey found that more than 17 percent of mothers reported that their children under 12 were not getting enough to eat because the family was unable to afford enough food – an increase of 400 percent from the government’s last estimate in 2018.
Specifically ask whether children in the household get enough to eat, rather than generally ask about access to household food, is an important distinction. Even in food insecure households, adults tend to protect children from going without food by skipping meals themselves or making other sacrifices. That can make it difficult to understand the direct effects of economic misery on young people.
But a few weeks ago, the Census Bureau added a specific question to its weekly survey asking whether children in the household “didn’t eat enough” because the family had been unable to afford enough food in the past week.
As the results are released, the numbers are alarmingly consistent: About 16 percent of households with children reported that children did not eat enough the previous week, according to an analysis of the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project released this week.
Racial differences are large, with 29 percent of black households and 24 percent of Spanish households reporting that children did not eat enough, compared to 9 percent of white households, according to the upcoming report. For all groups, those levels are extremely high compared to before the pandemic.
Before Covid-19 hit, food insecurity rates had declined in all groups in recent years, although large racial differences have persisted for decades. Black households with children have about double the food insecurity compared to white households with children.
Rates for Spanish households are somewhat varied. At times after the Great Recession, for example, Spanish families with children had more food insecurity than black households with children. But as the economy improved, the picture improved much faster for Spanish families than for blacks.