School is out for the summer, and while that means fun and vacation for some families, for others it can mean losing access to important sources of nutrition. Programs like the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option operate during the summer to address the gap in free and reduced-price meals that some children face, but they typically serve fewer children than the National School Lunch Program does during the traditional academic year.
Generally speaking, food insecurity refers to a lack of access to food for at least one member of the household at some point during the year. But that’s a very broad definition. It could mean, for example, worrying that food will run out, an inability to afford balanced meals, or skipping meals altogether. According to a report by the USDA Economic Research Service, nearly 7.5 million U.S. households with children experienced food insecurity at some time in 2014, including 422,000 households with “very low food security among children” where kids themselves went hungry, skipped meals, or went an entire day without eating. (The report explains that even when parents are food insecure themselves, they are often able to minimize disruptions to the children’s food intake.) So having “low” household food security doesn’t necessarily mean going hungry, and in addition, many families reduce the variety of foods that they eat rather than the amount they eat.
Even though we have all of these data, there’s a lot we still don’t know about food insecurity. We have a lot to learn, for example, about the challenges that families face when they have to rely on outside sources of food other than the free and reduced-price meals offered during the school year.
Data on the prevalence of food insecurity don’t tell us how it actually feels to those people who experience it. Take the USDA figures above, for example. They tell us that most families who experience food insecurity are able to keep their children from actually going hungry, but that doesn’t mean kids are spared from all of its consequences. Even when they don’t feel hungry themselves, children can be affected by food insecurity in their household.
For example, the stressful “trade-offs” that parents in food-insecure households may face can affect their children’s well-being indirectly through the parent’s own well-being. These trade-offs could include trading the quality of food for quantity, spending money on food instead of on other necessities, such as clothing or energy bills, and reducing their own food intake so that their kids can eat. Thus, even when kids don’t feel the physical effects of hunger, their lives can still be affected by food insecurity. They can experience significant stress, and are exposed to their parents’ stress, as well.
Researchers and policymakers are continually looking for new ways to address this issue, such as the recently evaluated Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children. But it’s clear that we have to consider the emotional challenges of food insecurity as well as the nutritional ones. And we have to remember that, just as food insecurity rates vary by community, household experiences vary from family to family. Summertime, which is fun for some families and difficult for others, is an important reminder of that.
Miranda Carver Martin, Senior Research Assistant