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Just six months ago, the United States began diagnosing patients with COVID-19. At this writing, the global total of known cases is just shy of 21 million. The economic impacts of the pandemic have been devastating for people everywhere.
In the United States, one alarming consequence is the rising rate of hunger among children. This issue of Institute Insights includes pandemic-era versions of the “back to school” and “back to college” updates that Bread for the World Institute often publishes in August. We also report on new modeling on the potential devastating impact of the pandemic on child malnutrition and on the launch of the 2020 Hunger Report, which featured an engaging conversation with a global leader and a local leader on how COVID-19 is compounding longstanding nutrition and health problems.
The pandemic has already had severe impacts on people in low-income countries, and these are expected to worsen as the economic fallout continues. This is because much of the damage is “secondary,” meaning simply that more people are suffering from loss of livelihoods and access to health and nutrition services than are impacted by COVID-19 directly. A report from Oxfam estimates that more people will die from hunger caused by COVID-19 in 2020 than from the virus itself.
Also troubling are the trends in recent years on global hunger and malnutrition. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report for 2020, launched on July 13, finds that in 2019, global hunger rose for the fifth year in a row.
SOFI is a voluminous report, but its “In Brief” version (44 pages) offers facts and figures to help anti-hunger advocates understand and explain the factors fueling hunger. This year’s SOFI reports that in every region of the world, the cost of a healthy diet puts it out of reach for people who live in extreme poverty or below $1.90 per day. These findings use the latest comprehensive data available on food costs (2017) and define “out of reach” as a cost of more than 63 percent of a household’s entire income. People in charge of shopping for food for their families can see all too clearly what “out of reach” means. SOFI found that a diet with adequate nutrients cost, on average, three times as much as one that simply has enough calories (often known as an “energy sufficient diet”). A healthy diet cost nearly five times as much.
The better news is that data also reveals the benefits of doing things differently. One striking example in the SOFI report is the potential benefit—both in people’s health and quality of life and in financial resources—of shifting to healthy diets. If today’s food consumption patterns continue, the healthcare costs of diet-related conditions are projected to reach $1.3 trillion annually by 2030. But healthy diets could yield a reduction in health costs of up to 97 percent, “thus creating significant savings that could be invested now to lower the cost of nutritious foods.”
Bread for the World and our allies in anti-hunger advocacy emphasize that the crucial ingredient in ending hunger is the political will to enact policies and allocate resources that move people in the direction of better health for themselves and the planet.
Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute.
By Todd Post
August is normally when most children in the United States begin heading back to school after summer break. COVID-19 has disrupted the plans of every school district. No one knows how long it will be until all our nation’s children have access to the education they need, since this means establishing safe, workable, and sustainable school systems.
The nationwide effects of school closures on child hunger, especially the long-term effects, are not at all clear. Bread for the World has for many years emphasized that school meal programs are absolutely essential to prevent children from going hungry. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of children were living in food-insecure families—some with annual incomes below the federal poverty threshold (which as of January 2020 was just over $26,000 for a family of four), and millions more whose incomes are higher but still not enough to cover basic needs.
Not only do school meals give children access to the food they need, but they also help prevent hunger among parents and other adults in food-insecure households by freeing up resources for additional groceries. Parents are less likely to have to skip meals to ensure that their kids have enough to eat at home.
A recent study shows that the higher nutrition standards enacted in the Healthy Hunger Free Schools Act of 2010 led to significant improvements in nutrition outcomes for children living in poverty. For millions of children, the meals served at school are more nutritious than those at home.
Almost everyone enjoys summer. Better weather and more daylight have allowed many people to get together in small groups outside, even though these gatherings look different from the ones we had in years past. Research shows that summer can be a hungry time for families whose children have free or reduced-price school meals. The Summer Nutrition Program is a poor substitute because it reaches only one child in seven who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals during the school year.
This is why Bread for the World has called for expansion of the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Program, most recently as part of the 2020 Offering of Letters. Summer EBT, as it is better known, tops off a family’s monthly SNAP benefits with an amount similar to the value of the meals that children receive at school. It is relatively easy to administer since the extra funds can just be loaded onto the family’s SNAP EBT card. But the program is not available in every state, so millions of food-insecure families don’t benefit from it.
When schools closed nationwide in March, school meal programs closed down as well. It is as though it has been summer break for six months and counting. Fortunately, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act established a program known as Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) that provides eligible families with debit cards holding the replacement value of their children’s free or reduced-price meals.
Bureaucracies don’t adjust quickly. States had to apply to participate in P-EBT, and some were slow to overcome administrative hurdles. After two months, only about 15 percent of eligible children were actually receiving the benefit. Child hunger rates soared in those early months. By July, however, nearly all states had been approved, and the program began to have a greater impact on hunger among children. Researchers at the Brookings Institution concluded that P-EBT reduced child hunger by 30 percent.
When Congress created P-EBT, it did not authorize the program to extend into the 2020-2021 school year. At the time of this writing, Congress is still debating whether to extend the program. Because schools have been forced to postpone reopening, failing to extend P-EBT would put a lot of children and their parents at greater risk of hunger. This is absolutely unnecessary. Americans certainly want schools to open and cafeterias to serve meals again, but not until it is safe for them to do so.
School meal programs are important to many people in addition to children and their parents. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the media carried many reports of farmers dumping milk, smashing eggs, and plowing vegetable crops under. School closures had a lot to do with that. Institutional purchasers such as schools, food banks, hospitals, and the military are a large part of the market for what farmers produce, and that market suddenly shrank dramatically. In turn, school closures also affected the jobs of food processors, truck drivers, cafeteria staff, and other food system workers.
Food systems are the focus of the 2020 Hunger Report: Better Nutrition, Better Tomorrow. In the report, we highlight the role of schools in food systems. There is much more to say about improving school meal programs, but the most urgent matters are securing an extension of P-EBT and sufficient funding for SNAP, nearly half of whose participants are children. The United States is fortunate to have the resources needed to keep its children from going hungry, and these resources must be made available to those in need.
Todd Post is senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World Institute.
By Christian Martinez
Hunger is a problem on college and university campuses, which means that higher education institutions have an important role to play in moving the United States closer to its goal of ending hunger and food insecurity.
The image of college students as carefree 18-year-olds in dorms, supported financially by their parents, depicts only a subset of the nation’s students. The National Council of State Legislators conducted research in 2016 that gave a more complete picture. In the previous 30 days, nearly half (48 percent) of the college students who responded reported being food insecure at some point during the previous 30 days. This figure was higher when only two-year colleges were included. Students of color and students who are the first generation in their families to attend college also reported higher levels of food insecurity.
Many students reported working 20 to 30 hours a week, while some were full-time students who also worked full-time. The study collected other data that provides a snapshot of students’ overall financial circumstances—for example, more than half of those responding said that a shortage of funds had prevented them from buying a required textbook.
As higher education institutions strive to develop emerging leaders and prepare students for their careers, administrators should examine what students need beyond rigorous coursework and professional opportunities. Schools should identify ways to offer nutritious food services and programs, because food insecurity can harm students’ mental or physical well-being, impact their performance in the classroom, and/or put them at higher risk of dropping out. It is especially important to focus on students who were previously food insecure (e.g., during childhood or adolescence) or who are at higher risk of being food insecure while they are students (e.g., single parents).
Many higher education institutions promote diversity and inclusion, but often neglect practical policy solutions that alleviate the diverse problems students face, including hunger. Diversity and inclusion initiatives tend to prioritize race, gender, and class during the admission process to provide more access to underrepresented students. There is value in that, but excluding lived experiences such as hunger means that once students are admitted, there is little focus on barriers that they may face due to these race, gender, and/or class inequities.
So far we have been describing campus food security issues before the COVID-19 pandemic. Students, along with many others, face increased hardship now. They need the support of their institutions more than ever. Many students who were not food insecure in the past are facing hunger, while those who were already at risk (e.g., students from lower-income households, who make up an increasing share of undergraduates at many colleges) are even more likely to experience hunger this year.
The closure of campuses due to COVID-19, with many students returning to their hometowns, has revealed the wide disparities between groups of students, despite the myth that higher education is the “great equalizer.”
At the time of writing, most institutions of higher learning are still on summer break or less structured summer sessions. Students have been struggling to find jobs this summer, including those whose prearranged internships were canceled, potentially hindering their longer-term job prospects. Students who are claimed as a dependent on a parent’s tax return are ineligible for a stimulus check. There have also been some reported delays in processing or disbursing various types of financial aid.
Colleges and universities should consider how they can best help their students cope with the hardships and disruptions caused by the pandemic. Local, state, and federal governments have a critical role, but so do the institutions that surround us, including higher education. They are often overlooked as sources of support for their communities and not expected to assume responsibilities, but this should not be the case. There is much universities can do, ranging from using any available “rainy day” funding to increase financial aid, to establishing a food pantry on campus if they do not already have one, to designating a staff member who can help eligible students apply to federal programs (e.g., the relatively few students who qualify for SNAP benefits). They can also commit to providing ongoing career preparation services to students from the class years most impacted by the pandemic.
Christian Martinez is a Racial Equity and Hunger intern with Bread for the World Institute.
By Tanuja Rastogi, ScD
Lurking behind the COVID-19 pandemic is news that is potentially even more devastating for the world’s most vulnerable people, those with the fewest resources and options. There may be a pandemic of malnutrition that affects millions of babies and young children. Without immediate action to avert such a disaster, experts in a recent Lancet report projected that the rate of wasting among children under 5 will spike by 14.3 percent this year.
An increase of such magnitude means that 6.7 million additional children will suffer from this life-threatening form of malnutrition. That, in turn, means that an estimated 10,000 additional children will die each month. These 6.7 million children are in addition to the 47 million children suffering from wasting in “normal,” non-pandemic times.
As shocking as these statistics are, the authors of the Lancet analysis have said that they reflect only the “tip of the iceberg.” They warn that estimates are “conservative.” One important omission is the costs of the anticipated increase in child stunting—costs that will recur for many years because an entire generation of children will have suffered lifelong damage to their health and their physical and cognitive development.
The socioeconomic hardships accompanying the pandemic, familiar to a vast number of Americans, are particularly harsh for vulnerable poor people in many parts of the developing world. As household incomes drop, families are unable to afford nutritious foods such as milk, eggs, fruits, and vegetables, or markets simply do not have them available, or both.
Nationwide shutdowns and mobility restrictions mean that mothers and their young children are unable to go for vital health and nutrition services, unable to get vaccinations, unable to receive the right prenatal care, unable to receive proper instruction and support on breastfeeding, unable to get treatment for children who lose dangerous amounts of weight or develop infections, and unable to get the right vitamin supplements for themselves and their children to support growth and a stronger immune system.
Without national safety net programs, such as WIC and SNAP in the United States, millions of mothers and children in many parts of the developing world are simply without lifelines in the face of the coming child malnutrition pandemic.
However, immediate action by the global community can prevent these projections from becoming reality. UN leaders, in an accompanying Call to Action in the Lancet, are calling for urgent measures that prioritize the nutritional needs of the most vulnerable young children. Swift response and investments are needed, including an additional $2.4 billion this year to enable humanitarian agencies to meet the nutritional needs of mothers and children in the most vulnerable contexts.
These dollar amounts pale in comparison to the losses that households, communities, and nations will face over the coming years and even decades. An entire generation of children will grow up unable to achieve their full potential because their health, educational attainment, and economic productivity have been impaired by early childhood stunting. Child malnutrition, particularly stunting, is associated with harmful economic impacts on countries, with annual GDP losses of as much as 11 percent.
Though the projections are grim, the good news is that unlike for COVID-19, the world already has the cure for the child malnutrition pandemic. The cure includes proven and effective nutrition interventions such as nutrient-rich diets, vitamin and micronutrient supplements, breastfeeding, and specialized nutritious foods to treat children who suffer from wasting.
Providing vital nutrition lifelines to millions of vulnerable mothers to protect their children from malnutrition seems almost simple in comparison to the race to develop a vaccine that will protect people all over the world from the novel coronavirus. The challenge is mobilizing the global community to act now to avert a child malnutrition pandemic.
Tanuja Rastogi, ScD, is senior global nutrition policy advisor with Bread for the World Institute.
By Michele Learner
Human well-being—nutrition and health—must be at the heart of the global food system. Making these the top priorities will require systemic change with equity. These were two main points conveyed June 28 at the virtual launch of Bread for the World Institute’s 2020 Hunger Report, Better Nutrition, Better Tomorrow.
Both Dr. David Nabarro, Special Envoy for COVID-19 Response to the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), and Rev. Dr. Heber M. Brown III, founder of the Black Church Food Security Network in Baltimore, pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the extreme frailty of many global and national systems. Although these systems are ostensibly in place to ensure that people have access to food, health care, and a way to earn a living, the reality is that before the pandemic, they were not working for hundreds of millions of people. Daily news reports of the disastrous results of human errors send a clear message: people around the world need to develop better ways of conceptualizing and building structures that promote our well-being and that of the planet.
The goal now should be to draw on human creativity to accomplish this, the speakers agreed. It is particularly important to seek out and welcome contributions from people who are not typically considered leaders. The multiple shortcomings of the COVID-19 response thus far—in health, hunger, economic resilience, and other areas—stem from the failure to put human needs at its center.
Nabarro said that one way to persuade world leaders that systems must change to prioritize human needs is to emphasize humanity’s duty—and its self-interest—to care for babies and toddlers. The nutritional needs of the 1,000 days between pregnancy and age 2 cannot wait. Every year, missing this nutrition window causes the preventable deaths of more than 2 million young children and, for many others, the lifelong disabilities associated with stunting. World leaders can and should get behind the idea that it is a grave injustice to deny small children the nutrients they need.
In spite of the failures and the tragic loss of human life associated with COVID-19, the world has also seen individual, community, and national victories. These are the results of people’s capacity to rise above adversity and develop practical solutions to pressing problems.
Nabarro said he continues to hear many amazing examples of strategies to meet needs that have been developed by people all over the world—often, people who are unexpected. Such leadership may come from women, people with few material resources or little education, youth, or others of traditionally lower status.
Brown said that COVID-19 has brought members of black churches in several states back to the land. Right now, church cannot mean getting dressed up on Sunday and sitting among a large group of other people in an indoor sanctuary. But it can mean gardening while observing public health guidelines.
The adage “Think globally, act locally,” familiar to many anti-hunger advocates, takes on added meaning when the goal is to change how a system works. It includes identifying successes under similar circumstances, no matter where these took place, and adapting what has been learned to one’s own context. It includes setting a priority to ask people with experience to share strategies that have helped them. It includes involving in program design, from the very beginning, people who have survived previous crises and/or intersecting forms of oppression. These actions will hopefully sound familiar to Bread members since they are key principles of building racial equity—an integral part of our work and an essential condition for ending hunger.
Brown noted that, once people have survived the worst of a disaster, they have a tendency to “hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.” But both he and Nabarro warned that we must not squander this brief window of opportunity to keep pressing for sustainable change. Watch the recording of the Hunger Report launch.
Michele Learner is managing editor with Bread for the World Institute.
These fact sheets provide a snapshot of hunger and poverty in the United States and in each state plus Washington, D.C.
With the coronavirus now spreading in low-resource contexts and new waves of infection expected in the coming year, better nutrition for vulnerable people is more important than ever.
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in faith.” These words from Colossians 2:6 remind us of the faith that is active in love for our neighbors.
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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is designed to respond to changes in need, making it well suited to respond to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bread for the World and its partners are asking Congress to provide $200 million for global nutrition in the fiscal year 2020 budget.
In 2017, 11.8 percent of households in the U.S.—40 million people—were food-insecure, meaning that they were unsure at some point during the year about how they would provide for their next meal.