Consistent Access to Nutritious Foods – Basic Care for our Kids
Eat your fruits and vegetables. Have a good breakfast. Everything in moderation. An apple a day… We’ve likely heard, and perhaps repeated, these and other food-centered sayings. Research shows that access to regular, healthy meals is foundational to the near- and long-term wellbeing of children, and of particular importance for children living in low-income households. Children with healthy diets experience fewer illnesses and diseases, perform better in school, and have reduced lifetime healthcare costs. Hoosiers have a long, strong tradition of supporting policies and programs offering care for our children. Ensuring all kids have accessible, healthy meals is one of the most basic ways to continue this care.
Before Covid-19, the number of hungry children in Indiana and across the country had been declining for years. Prior to the pandemic, 1 in 6 Hoosier children (15.3%) were food insecure. Hoosiers living in rural areas have tended to have the highest rates of food insecurity, with urban areas a close second. Pre-pandemic, child food insecurity rates ranged from as high as 21.0% in Grant County, down to 11.9% in Hamilton County.
The increased unemployment rates related to the pandemic contributed to increased rates of food insecurity. Nationally, food insecurity rose from 1 in 7 children in 2019 to 1 in 5 children in 2020. Indiana’s projected child food insecurity percentage follows the national trend. In 2020, we saw our state’s child food insecurity rate go up by over 27% to nearly 1 in every 5 Hoosier children (19.5%) being identified as lacking consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. In addition, No Kid Hungry reports that African American households face hunger at twice the rate of the national average. Early projections show that, in 2021, we may see a drop in the share of children in such situations from the high in 2020, but at 16.6%, that would still be a higher number of hungry kids than before the pandemic.
At a time when the pandemic has increased childhood food insecurity, Indiana is also facing an increasing number of children that are overweight or obese. It may seem like childhood obesity and hunger are conflicting problems, yet the conditions and underlying causes are complex and interrelated. Both food insecurity and obesity are most prevalent in the poorest areas of the state, and families living in poverty often live-in food deserts, with limited access to healthy food. At the same time, families living in poverty often have easier access to high-fat and sugar dense processed foods that are less expensive with longer shelf lives.
Over the past few years, Indiana has seen a 7-percentage point increase in overweight or obese children ages 10 to 17. Compared to our neighboring states, Indiana has the second-highest percentage (36.6%) of youth ages 10 to 17 who are overweight or obese (Kentucky, 36.9%; Ohio, 34.4%; Michigan, 30.1%; Illinois, 29.3%). Even though childhood obesity is increasing for all Hoosier children, its prevalence also is higher in non-White populations. Hoosier youth who are White, non-Hispanic had the lowest obesity rate (33.0%) followed by Hispanic (42.3%) children. Obesity rates were significantly higher for Hoosier youth who are Black (58.0%), underscoring the fact that higher rates of food insecurity are directly related to the racial wealth gap. Households headed by a single parent also experience food insecurity at significantly higher rates, especially when the head is female, as do households where a child or parent is disabled. It is clear that poverty hinders access to healthy options, and contributes significantly to the disparities we see across race and ethnicity in rates of obesity and overweight children.
This year, Congress is set to reauthorize the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), and other child nutrition programs through a process called Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). Through the pandemic there has been strong, bi-partisan support for additional flexibility and adaptations to these and other federal programs providing meals to children. We need to continue to look for local, state, and national programs to ensure our kids have the healthy food options to fuel their development. See IYI’s Child Nutrition Data Report – August 2021 for more details and recommendations.
The data is clear – more Hoosier children need consistent access to nutritious meals. Many of our local foodbanks, schools, afterschool programs, and faith centers have been doing heroic work striving to respond to increasing child food insecurity. We need both to support these crucial local efforts while also pursuing needed systematic change through national and state policy updates. Support your local programs that feed kids and families and call your elected officials to urge them to make updated child hunger and food programs a policy priority. The benefits of ensuring children in low-income households, and all kids, have access to healthy food are clear and significant. But above all, feeding children is simply what caring Hoosiers do.
About the Indiana Youth Institute For three decades, the Indiana Youth Institute has supported the youth services field through innovative trainings, critical data, and capacity-building resources, aiming every effort at increasing the well-being of all children. To learn more about the Indiana Youth Institute, visit www.iyi.org, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.