June 24, 2022

Families with young children in the United States are facing a hunger crisis.

During the pandemic, Stanford’s RAPID survey has been tracking hunger among American families with young children. Before the pandemic, 18% of RAPID families with young children were experiencing hunger, and by October 2020, this number had risen to 30%. Hunger gradually decreased during 2021 but remained consistently above pre-pandemic levels. In the fall of 2021, hunger among families in the RAPID survey began to steadily rise again and has continued to increase over the past year—particularly among families with lower incomes (those with pre-pandemic incomes less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Line). As of spring 2022, 23% of all families and 45% of families with lower incomes are  experiencing hunger, and the situation is continuing to worsen.

Families are not the only ones who have experienced worsening hunger since the pandemic began. RAPID data show that hunger is more common among the child care providers who care for young children than it is for the families that they serve. In February 2022, a full third of all RAPID child care providers and nearly half of lower-income child care providers were experiencing hunger. These are the highest rates of hunger reported since the survey of providers began.

In the past year, the overall food index (the average amount that consumers pay for food) has risen over 11%, and inflation has risen 8.5%—the biggest increase since 1981. The prices of basic essentials have soared, and American families are reaching a breaking point.

During the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued meal programs and nutrition waivers that expanded food access to children and their families. Free meals and flexible delivery options were made available to children at schools and child care facilities. The USDA nutrition waivers also assisted child care providers by eliminating area eligibility, increasing the reimbursement allowances for food served to children in family child care. The USDA waivers allowed providers to maintain adequate food offerings without increasing the rates paid by already struggling parents.

When the USDA nutrition waivers for families and child care providers expire on June 30, 2022, parents and other caregivers will face fewer options for how to provide adequate healthy food to the young children in their care. With no room left in the food budgets, this loss will have dire consequences. Many more families will be pushed into food insecurity. Early child care providers have few options for making up this loss because they know parents cannot pay higher fees. For some providers, this loss of resources may be the tipping point causing them to close their doors, further exacerbating the current child care shortage.

Congress must act to extend all of these waivers by June 30, or millions of already stretched families and child care providers will be left with increased grocery bills and more children at risk of hunger. Congress should increase reimbursements to schools and child care centers, support access to summer meals, allow children who are eligible to receive reduced-price school meals to receive free school meals, and streamline access to healthy meals for children in family child care by extending the area eligibility waiver.

Congress must pass legislation quickly to support access to summer programs, child care, and schools this summer. It is an important first step to provide schools, child care providers, and summer programs additional resources to help them overcome supply chain disruptions; soaring prices for food, transportation, and supplies; and rising labor costs. Permanent improvements streamlining access to healthy meals for all children in schools and child care must also be made through upcoming budget bills and Child Nutrition Reauthorization.

 Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development—Early Childhood