Alexandra Sierra carried boxes of food to her kitchen counter, where her 7-year-old daughter Rachell stirred a pitcher of lemonade.
“Oh, my God, it smells so good!” Sierra, 39, said of the bounty she’d picked up at a food pantry, pulling out a ready-made salad and a container of soup.
Sierra unpacked the donated food and planned lunch for Rachell and her siblings, ages 9 and 2, as a reporter watched via FaceTime. She said she doesn’t know what they’d do without the help.
The family lives in Bergen County, New Jersey, a dense grouping of 70 municipalities opposite Manhattan with about 950,000 people whose median household income ranks in the top 1% nationally. But Sierra and her husband Aramon Morales never made a lot of money and are now out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The financial fallout of COVID-19 has pushed child hunger to record levels. The need has been dire since the pandemic began and points up the gaps in the nation’s safety net.
While every U.S. county has seen hunger rates rise, the steepest jumps have been in some of the wealthiest counties, where overall affluence obscures the tenuous finances of low-wage workers. Such sudden and unprecedented surges in hunger have overwhelmed many rich communities, which weren’t nearly as ready to cope as places that have long dealt with poverty and were already equipped with robust, organized charitable food networks.
Data from the anti-hunger advocacy group Feeding America and the U.S. Census Bureau show that counties seeing the largest estimated increases in child food insecurity in 2020 compared with 2018 generally have much higher median household incomes than counties with the smallest increases. In Bergen County, where the median household income is $101,144, child hunger is estimated to have risen by 136%, compared with 47% nationally.
That doesn’t mean affluent counties have the greatest portion of hungry kids. An estimated 17% of children in Bergen County face hunger, compared with a national average of around 25%.
But help is often harder to find in wealthier places. Missouri’s affluent St. Charles County, population 402,000, north of St. Louis, has seen child hunger rise by 69% and has 20 sites distributing food from the St. Louis Area Foodbank. The city of St. Louis, pop. 311,000, has seen child hunger rise by 36% and has 100 sites.
“There’s a huge variation in how different places are prepared or not prepared to deal with this and how they’ve struggled to address it,” said Erica Kenney, an assistant professor of public health nutrition at Harvard University. “The charitable food system has been very strained by this.”
Eleni Towns, associate director of the No Kid Hungry campaign, said the pandemic “undid a decade’s worth of progress” on reducing food insecurity, which last year threatened at least 15 million kids.
And while President Joe Biden’s COVID relief plan promises to help with anti-poverty measures such as monthly payments to families of up to $300 per child this year, it’s unclear how far the recently passed legislation will go toward addressing hunger.
After the pandemic struck, the federal government boosted benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and offered Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer cards to compensate for free or reduced-price school meals while children were schooled from home.
Sierra and her family saw their SNAP benefits of about $800 a month rise slightly and got two of those P-EBT payments, worth $434 each. But that came as they lost their main sources of income. Sierra left her Amazon warehouse job when the kids’ school went remote, and Morales stopped driving for Uber when trips became scarce, and he feared getting COVID on top of his asthma.
Federal relief wasn’t enough for them and many others. So they flocked to food pantries.
Pantries and the food banks that supply them are part of what’s supposed to be an emergency system designed for short-term crises, said Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.
“The problem is, they’ve actually become a standard source of food for a lot of people,” Schwartz said.
In Bergen County, the Center for Food Action helped 40,500 households last year, up from 23,000 the year before. In Eagle County, Colorado, where Vail, the tony ski resort town, is located, the Community Market food bank saw its client load nearly quadruple, to 4,000. And outside Boston in the affluent Massachusetts county of Norfolk — where Feeding America data shows child hunger jumped from an estimated 6% of kids to 16% — Dedham Food Pantry’s clients tripled, to 1,800.
“This is just out of control compared to other times,” said Lynn Rogal, vice president of the Dedham pantry, which opened in 1990.
Pantry managers said a disproportionate number of clients are from minority groups. Many lost jobs in the eviscerated service sector that undergirds the wealthier parts of their counties. Julie Yurko, chief executive of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, said up to half of her current clients have never sought help before.
“In early January, we had a white minivan pull up with three kids, 5 and younger. It ran out of gas sitting there,” Yurko said. “The mom was sobbing, and her beautiful children were sitting there watching her.”
Kelly Sirimoglu, spokesperson for New Jersey’s Center for Food Action, said the stigma around seeking help can be worse in wealthy areas. She said some people tell her, “I never thought I would be in line for food.”
Advocates said the reluctance to seek help means the need is likely even larger than it appears.
Katie Wilson of St. Charles, Missouri, said she heard about a food pantry run by Sts. Joachim & Ann Care Service from a friend of a friend. She almost didn’t go. The single mom of two children, 11 and 9, lost her job as a hotel auditor in June and tried to squeak by without her income for two months.
“We found ourselves in a situation where it was a ‘heat or eat’ kind of thing,” said Wilson, 42, describing having to choose between heating her home or buying food. “It took me looking around and saying, ‘There is nothing to eat.’ ”
As hunger has become more visible, donations to food charities have risen. But they don’t address the problem of an infrastructure that doesn’t match the new need. Some pantries are open just a few hours a week in church basements, a far cry from those that operate regularly and look like supermarkets. Many small pantries struggled to shift to outdoor food distribution during the pandemic or find new helpers when the few, often senior, volunteers felt unsafe doing the work.
“It definitely is harder in these places,” said Yurko, whose food bank distributes to Kendall County, which has just three pantries for its population of 129,000. “The safety nets are not as robust.”
A strong safety net also requires pantries to cooperate with one another and the broader array of local social services. That’s been happening for years in Flint, Michigan, said Denise Diller, executive director of Crossover Downtown Outreach Ministry, which runs a pantry. Agencies and community leaders banded together in 2014 when lead poisoned the drinking water.
“When COVID occurred, we were already kind of ready,” Diller said.
So was Atlanta. Fifteen percent of children in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, faced hunger before the pandemic. After COVID suspended volunteer shifts, the Atlanta Community Food Bank asked the Georgia National Guard to help sort, pack, warehouse and deliver food to help meet the needs of the estimated 22% of kids experiencing hunger. The food bank also worked with seven school districts on more than 30 mobile pantries.
Such coordination and connections were lacking in Bergen County, where 80 pantries worked mostly in isolation when the pandemic hit, County Commissioner Tracy Zur said.
“They weren’t collaborating,” Zur said. “They were going along the same path they had for decades. There was this need to break out of the old way of doing things and work together to be more impactful.”
She spearheaded the creation of a food security task force in July, reaching out to municipal and faith leaders. Goals include feeding people, connecting them to other services and turning some emergency food programs into full-fledged pantries.
Now, Zur said, pantries are starting to share when one gets a large donation of perishable items such as eggs or milk.
Similarly, during a recent trip to a food pantry Sierra, the New Jersey mom, opened the trunk of her 1999 Toyota and rummaged through the two big boxes volunteers had just placed there. She pointed to eggs, chicken, bread, butter, cheese and apples, observing, “I have more than I need.”
But she said it would never go to waste, that any extra would go to neighbors and their hungry children.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Contributing: Cara Anthony, Elizabeth Lucas