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Food donations are handed out at a distribution center in Reading, Pennsylvania. Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images
  • Experts say the hunger crisis has increased in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • They say a lack of healthy food can exacerbate health issues, including heart disease and high blood pressure, in people of all ages.
  • They note that hunger can also affect children’s performance in school as well as cause developmental delays.

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“As soon as I get the box, I start thinking: I can put the mixed vegetables with the ground meat. I can make soup and beef stew, rice and beans and pasta. I have stuff for salads. They’re even giving me eggs I can make for breakfast.”

That’s the thought process Mary Castillo goes through twice a month when she receives food boxes for her family.

The Texas grandmother is raising six of her teenage grandchildren. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of those children are remote learning from home.

That means they don’t get the breakfast and lunch they would normally get at school. So providing those meals takes a bigger bite out of the family’s food budget.

Castillo is one of hundreds of families who line up at a San Antonio food bank two Saturdays a month.

“Right now, the food bank helps me fill in the gaps and stretch out my food so it lasts. I’m just grateful and very blessed,” she told Healthline.

Experts say millions more families are “food insecure” right now, worried how to put food on the table as well as where their next meal will come from.

A recent survey found that some 29 million adults — 14 percent of the U.S. population — reported being food insecure. That’s compared to 3 percent before the pandemic.

Advocates who fight hunger among children say the picture is even more alarming.

“We’ve seen a pretty significant increase in the number of children that are literally hungry every single day,” said Caron Gremont, director of early childhood hunger at Share Our Strength, the parent organization of the No Kid Hungry campaign.

“What we’re estimating is that today we’re looking at about 17 million children facing hunger, compared to less than 11 million just a year ago,” Gremont told Healthline.

“Have I seen the effects of food insecurity during COVID? Hands down,” added Dr. Kofi Essel, MPH, a pediatrician at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“We do something in our clinical space where we screen all of our families universally for food insecurity,” Essel told Healthline.

“This is anecdotal because we haven’t collected the data, but my colleagues and myself are seeing a lot of our adults answering the screeners positively and asking what resources are available. And they’re describing increased stress at home,” he explained.

Experts say addressing hunger isn’t just an economic issue but a health issue, too.

“Globally, this is especially true for the most vulnerable populations in a community, including children under 5, [and] pregnant and breastfeeding women,” Bridget Aidam, PhD, director of technical services and innovation at Action Against Hunger, told Healthline.

“Children who are struggling with food insecurity are at greater risk for poor health, hospitalization, developmental delays, and poor academic performance” said Gremont.

“If your belly isn’t full, it’s harder to focus in class. Your test scores drop,” she added. “You end up with lower graduation rates. It’s directly connected to income and job success.”

And studies have linked food insecurity to chronic conditions in older adults such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, asthma, cancer, arthritis, and diabetes.

On Friday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order designed to boost benefits to about 40 million Americans who rely on federal food assistance.

“They are in this situation through no fault of their own,” Biden said at a news conference.

Even with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamp benefits during the pandemic, many families still struggle to put food on the table.

The order the president signed calls on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expand the emergency SNAP benefits Congress approved in the year-end COVID-19 relief package to 12 million more enrollees whose incomes weren’t low enough for them to qualify.

Additionally, it calls on the USDA to allow states to make it easier for more people to enroll in the program.

The order also calls on the USDA to increase the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) by 15 percent. That benefit was designed to give families extra money to provide meals for their children who would normally get fed at school.

The moves were welcomed by groups working to fight hunger.

“We applaud the Biden Administration’s swift action. This is a good first step,” said Eric Mitchell, the executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger.

“The president’s executive order will give those families a little more money in their wallet to buy the food they need to help their children thrive,” Mitchell told Healthline.

“My colleagues are seeing a lot of families who may be privately insured using resources like the food pantries to access food,” said Essel. “They make too much money to access some of the federal nutrition programs, so they have to access more readily available emergency food programs.”

Food banks and food suppliers say they’re seeing more families line up. Often it’s their first time.

“We’re seeing people who are educated and had great jobs, but their businesses closed or shut down because of the pandemic. They’re lining up with everybody else,” said Bernie Fowler Jr, executive director and president of Farming 4 Hunger, an organization that supplies fresh produce and vegetables to food banks in southern Maryland.

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Cars line up at a food bank in central Florida. Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Fowler said the pandemic and the dire need sent his organization scrambling to look for new ways to get the job done.

“We started reevaluating what we can grow that can have a longer shelf life; that’s easy to fix,” he told Healthline. “I wanted it to be used in these three things… soups, stews, and stir-fries. Things that can last for several meals, can be frozen, or you can combine the stir-fry with some rice.”

Essel said the food banks and pantries fill an obvious need, but since they rely on volunteers and donations, they can’t do the job alone.

For every one meal a food bank provides, SNAP is estimated to provide nine.

“We know these federal food programs have documented evidence of rescuing families from food insecurity, from poverty,” Essel said. “They improve overall health and reduce admissions to the hospital. They’re reliable and consistent.”

The president also asked the USDA to begin revising the Thrifty Food Plan that determines the benefits for SNAP to make it better reflect the cost of a healthy diet in today’s dollars.

That overhaul was directed in the 2018 Farm Bill.

As part of his proposed American Rescue Plan, Biden is calling on Congress to:

  • Extend the 15 percent SNAP benefit increase.
  • Invest another $3 billion through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to help vulnerable mothers and kids get the food they need.
  • Look for creative ways to support restaurants as a critical link in the food supply chain to help feed families in need.
  • Provide U.S. territories with $1 billion in additional nutrition assistance funding.

Advocates say all of those measures will be needed to address the hunger crisis.

“We appreciate that the administration recognizes that investing in federal nutrition programs such as SNAP, WIC, and Pandemic EBT is an important part of its COVID-19 recovery agenda,” Mitchell said.