The Babies Are Crying: COVID-Related Hunger and Our Youngest Children

Woman with baby

New research from both the Urban Institute and the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution confirms what many of us have feared since the COVID pandemic began: our babies and toddlers are going hungry at alarming rates. They are literally crying out for help, and with this research, there is no excuse for policymakers not to act.

The new research from the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution, released right before Thanksgiving, finds that in the month of October nearly one in 10 parents with children ages five and younger said their children did not have enough to eat and that they did not have enough money to buy food.

Similarly, new research from the Urban Institute finds that 23.9 percent of parents with children under the age of six faced hunger and hardship in the previous month. This could mean they did not have enough food and/or they had to make trade-offs, like choosing cheaper, less nutritious foods for their babies instead of fruit and vegetables.

These findings are alarming enough, but consider that in 2019, 14.5 percent of households with children under age 6 were food insecure, according to the USDA. In less than a year, the food insecurity rates for young children and their families have almost doubled.  

We must come together today. It’s a simple fact that hungry kids cannot wait, and our babies need sufficient healthy food every single day to survive and thrive. 

For these families, the impact of COVID won’t end when a vaccine is available. The decisions they are being forced to make now will forever alter their children’s brains and bodies. 

Access to sufficient nutritious foods is crucial during the rapid growth and development of early childhood. According to the World Health Organization, “Early childhood is the most intensive period of brain development during the lifespan. Adequate stimulation and nutrition are essential for development during the first three years of life.”  

Children living in households experiencing food insecurity are at greater risk of fair or poor health and hospitalizations, developmental delays, cognitive impairment, poor academic performance, abnormal weight and body mass index, and decreased social skills. And, as if that’s not enough of a reason to address this now, three of the five most costly adult diseases (cardiovascular disease, diabetes and depression which cost $582b annually) are associated with early life adversity, like food insecurity, according to the American Heart Association. 

If we don’t act now, we will have to act later. 

Decades of structural racism have already left far too many communities with limited access to healthy food and far too many young children vulnerable; the economic impacts of COVID are just augmenting an already threadbare patchwork of support. 

Food insecurity rates do not have to climb with the COVID-19 infection rates. It doesn’t have to be this way. Charities and food banks are part of the solution, but the need is too vast and they can’t shoulder this burden alone. To feed children at this scale, we need action from Congress.  

We urge Congress and the Administration to pass a relief bill that addresses the dire needs of children and families experiencing hunger and hardship immediately. This must include: 

  • Temporarily increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) maximum benefit by 15 percent and raise the minimum benefit to $30 through September 2021; 
  • Providing immediate guidance to child care centers so the families they support can realize the P-EBT benefits that have been a much-needed lifeline for older children; and
  • Temporarily increasing WIC cash value vouchers to help more young children get the healthy foods they need to thrive during this pandemic and because every child deserves a healthy start

It is unimaginable that parents are facing these impossible decisions behind closed doors in the richest country in the world.

For these families, babies may need more formula that mom simply can’t afford to buy. Or exhausted parents (and breastfeeding moms whose bodies need more calories) are making impossible decisions about who gets to eat enough and who doesn’t. It could also mean parents having to choose between food or heat, rent or diapers. 

It is time to open the doors, to hear their calls for help and to ensure our youngest children have their most basic needs met.

WATCH: No Kid Hungry hosts a town hall on COVID-19's impact on hunger among kids ages 0-5