Abhinav Totapally, MD Pediatric Resident
Ana C. Monterrey, MD, MPH Pediatrician
As pediatricians, we spend a lot of time talking about nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices with our families. However, a healthy lifestyle is hard for many families who rely on safety nets under typical circumstance, so what happens when those safety nets are stretched in a time of crisis?
We have seen patients whose families have trouble buying vegetables. In fact, not being able to purchase food during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a parent or caretakers’ job loss is an awfully familiar story at this point. When asked about going to food pantries, they say they have tried, but they often run out of healthy food options, including produce.
Numerous studies show that food insecurity is associated with negative health, behavioral, academic and emotional outcomes in children of all ages. The COVID Impact Survey and the Survey of Mothers with Young Children showed in April 2020 that almost 20% of mothers with children ages 12 and under answered that their children were not eating enough because they could not afford to buy food. In 2018, that number was less than 5%. In a recent study in Central Texas, 47% of families at a Federally Qualified Health Center screened positive for food insecurity, and 94% indicated this started or worsened during the pandemic. In these times of increased food insecurity, many families turn to food banks for help.
Demand for food banks is increasing all over the country. In 2019, 40 million Americans received free meals or groceries from food banks. As of June 27, 32 million people filed for unemployment causing a surge of demand across the nation. Texas is no exception. In March, at the start of the pandemic, Houston Food Bank’s (HFB) demand nearly doubled and as of May 2020, increased 150%.
What does this mean for our pediatric patients? Children struggle to have enough food to eat, especially healthy food options. In addition to lost jobs and income, the loss of school meals and summer food programs has exacerbated child hunger significantly. School curbside pickup was plagued by long lines, and HISD schools stopped briefly in late March and closed again on July 3 due to the surge in cases of COVID-19. HISD food distribution resumed on July 20, but at just 12 sites across our community. Accessing school meals will continue to be a problem for HISD students as the district continues virtual learning through at least the first 6 weeks of the school year.
Food insecurity leads to tough choices for families – paying for food or paying bills. Food banks are a resource to alleviate these touch decisions, but should be an emergency plan, not a source of regular meals. Other programs can help feed families. The Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program is a Department of Agriculture program that provides a one-time payment of $285 to families of children who received free or reduced price school meals during the 2019-2020 school year. Each eligible child up to age 21 who received free or subsidized meals at school is eligible. Families living in Texas can still apply for this money but, the deadline to register is August 21, 2020. Register here or by calling 833-613-6220.
In addition to the P-EBT program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been shown to reduce the prevalence of food insecurity and provides nine times as much food as food banks. In March, Congress expanded SNAP, but with the pandemic worsening there is a fresh need for increased coverage.
Currently, the Senate is voting on a new stimulus bill. However, the proposed bill does not contain expansions for SNAP or an extension for P-EBT. Please call or email senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and urge them to include expansions for both these programs in the new stimulus bill. Feeding America and Voices for Healthy Children both have pre-written letters to send to Congress requesting a 15% increase in SNAP benefits and extension of P-EBT through the next school year, respectively. Finally, on July 30, 2020 the House introduced “The Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act” which would allow access to school meals for all children during the 2020-2021 school year. Please email or call your representatives to voice support for this legislation as well!
There are other ways to help. First, just donating to a food bank— every $1 allows the food bank to collect 10 pounds of food. Second, if you are or know a family in need, the HFB hotline (832-369-9390) can help. During this critical time, we need to come together as a city to help our children.