Food insecurity seems to have risen during the pandemic. Why that’s critical for Philadelphia’s early learners.

Local health and hunger experts say that while exact numbers have yet to be reported, the pandemic has most likely worsened what was already one of the highest child food insecurity rates in the country.
A child helps to plant vegetables at the North Philadelphia Peace Park. Local health and hunger experts say the pandemic has worsened what was already one of the highest child food insecurity rates in the country. (North Philadelphia Peace Park.)

One year before the pandemic, Camille Bell, a North Philadelphia mother of two, applied for food stamps and was denied because she was making more than the household limit. 

A veteran on disability and a fixed income, Bell said she could have used the extra benefits to support her and the family’s two children, now ages 2 and 8. Their situation got worse during the pandemic, especially when the father of her second child was cut from his job.

“I basically have to really budget the money that I do have left over after paying bills to really manage us having food in the house or I’m very open to being able to receive food through community programs to carry us through the month because it’s not that we are having to  go completely without, but there are times that I have to stretch the food out,” she said. “I probably can see it coming, kind of planning in a way where maybe over that week I see the need to make more of a budget meal that’s going to last for a few days.”

Bell is one of thousands of parents in Philadelphia with early learners who are dealing with some degree of food insecurity, especially as the pandemic has left people without regular work and a steady flow of income.

Felice Le-Scherban, assistant professor of epidemiology at Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health and the principal investigator for the Philadelphia site of Children’s Healthwatch, said higher levels of food insecurity can affect early learners’ development.

“Food insecurity among young children is associated with poor overall health, putting them at developmental risk. It’s also associated with more hospitalizations, and also, this may seem counterintuitive, but with a higher risk of obesity,” said Le-Scherban. “And this can be because sometimes food insecurity can lead to needing to prioritize just having enough calories and purchasing less nutritionally dense food with fewer vitamins and nutrients, which can be more expensive, as opposed to less expensive food that may be higher in calories but don’t provide as many nutrients.”

Local health and hunger experts say that while exact numbers have yet to be reported, the pandemic has most likely worsened what was already one of the highest child food insecurity rates in the country. According to Feeding America, Philadelphia’s 2018 child food insecurity rate was 24.2% and the projected 2021 rate is 28.6%.

Le-Scherban said their preliminary research shows a growing pattern. A network of pediatricians and researchers, Children’s Healthwatch (Philadelphia) surveys the caregivers of young children under the age of 4 while they are in medical center waiting areas, waiting for pediatric care.

In 2016, among families surveyed at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, 11.8% reported that their children were food insecure. Now preliminary research, which is still ongoing, shows a sharp shift.

Recent surveys of families that Children’s HealthWatch (Philadelphia) previously spoke to between 2018 and 2020 indicate “striking increases in food insecurity,” said Le-Scherban. She added that although the research is “preliminary” and was conducted mainly on North Philadelphia families, it can be applied generally.

“We do have information on child food insecurity in our COVID survey but have not analyzed it yet. However, based on the preliminary numbers that we have already seen with pretty dramatic increases in household food insecurity, I think it is very likely that child food insecurity is at least as high or higher than it was before the pandemic,” she said. “What we can absolutely say is we have seen increases in household food insecurity.”

The School District of Philadelphia hasn’t surveyed families about how food insecurity is affecting them during the pandemic, but in the 2018-19 school year, 22% of parents responded to a districtwide survey, “Understanding Food Insecurity in the School District of Philadelphia.”

Of parents who responded, 13% said they worried about having enough food for their family in the past 30 days. Of the principals who responded, 32% said food insecurity was a “moderate” or “great” challenge to learning in their school.

“Most people, whether they are children or adults, if they are hungry, it’s going to be hard for them to focus,” said Principal Shakeera Warthen of Bregy Elementary School. “It is important for our students to be fed so they can participate in learning. What’s going on with the pandemic and everything else in the world has been hard for us as adults to deal with, it’s very hard for little people to deal with. Even if they don’t know everything that’s going on, they see how it’s impacting people around them, so they have to take on that stress.”

Monica Lewis, a district spokeswoman, said an assessment might be conducted after the end of this school year to measure how issues during the pandemic affected early childhood learning. 

“When school starts next year, we’ll figure out a way to see where our students are and what needs to be done to make sure that they have what they need to continue to thrive and that goes well beyond access to food but to make sure they are supported as best as possible,” she said.

Bell said in her experience, it may have affected her son’s attitude at home.

“I can’t say for sure. It would be like us experiencing issues at home because I have, for a long time, had issues with my oldest son at school. He is diagnosed with ADHD, I don’t completely subscribe to that. I just think he is a busy 8-year-old, but he’s definitely been detached from school. It does in some way have something to do with what we experience in the house. I try to have conversations with him about his feelings and emotions,” she said.

“He’s constantly asking for food - being at home, it’s a real strange area where I noticed I wasn’t having to go out so much compared to now during the pandemic. I will give him a morning snack just to kind of stretch things out and then I would give him a bigger lunch meal but he’s like disconnected in between that time. He might still be asking me for something else to eat.”

Malika King, a single mother of eight children, said access to food has been a struggle, especially during the pandemic when her food stamps were taken away.

“I’m a single mom, I don’t have the help from my children’s father. So, it’s been a little struggle. I do stretch my food…I have to make sure I have enough to go day by day and I have to be specific. [But] I make sure they have food on the table,” said King.

“No one is going starving, but we are not rich. I make sure they have a three-course meal, if they like it or not. We can’t say ‘I want this, I want that.’ We have to eat whatever I cook. They recognize I’m trying really hard to provide food and we shouldn’t waste food because there are people out there that have less than we have.”

Since last March, when schools shut down, the school district has given out more than 8 million meals through their Grab-N-Go Meals program. They started distributing meals five days a week at schools, but now give out seven-day meal kits on Fridays.

Wayne Grasela, senior vice president of Food Services, said the program is the only one of its magnitude that he’s seen in his 34 years with the district.

“We knew from the very beginning that we were going to be front-lined, we feed the children day in, day out, every day, summers, sometimes on Saturdays, after school...We knew we needed to step up right from the very beginning,” he said.

Many organizations in Philadelphia also give out food boxes and or meals. Philabundance and Share, two large-scale food programs, both reported a 60% increase in the food they’ve distributed during the pandemic.  

Le-Scherban believes that the country needs to address some of the systemic roots to food insecurity. She noted that the child tax credit, which passed as part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, is estimated to temporarily cut child poverty in half. 

She would like to see that kind of change made permanently. 

“When the same population and the same families are encountering hardships like food insecurity over and over again, generation after generation. At that point, we really need to start to think about what are the large systems that we have that are creating those inequities over time, over generations,” she said.

Bell, the North Philadelphia mother of two, has accessed the North Philly Peace Park, which offers free access to a garden of fresh produce and teaches her family how to grow their own food. 

After the public school nearest her stopped giving out food during the pandemic, it became a key part of helping feed her children.

“They were one of the first organizations I know that started going hard — like giving out food at the onset of the pandemic,” she said. “Once the pandemic started, wanting to give my child balanced meals [and] really trying to make sure we include vegetables and especially to have locally grown vegetables - [being] able to access that garden definitely helped for me not to put thought into where I was going to get these things from.”

King has gotten some food for her family from local food programs and a community organizer she used to work for, but she said those aren’t sustainable. She observed that the increased pressure from the pandemic has made her look inward.

“I think that it’s a push for me not to rely on others and a push for me to do for myself. It’s been quite a struggle,” she said. “But I have no other choice but for it to be okay. It’s a push for me to make it my own way.”

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