COVID-19 amplifying poverty leads to high numbers of food insecure children in WNY and beyond

Erie County

Washington, D.C. (WIVB) — Feeding America, a national organization focused on providing equal access to nutritious food, reports that as many as one in five children in the state of New York could battle hunger every day. More specifically, the organization’s Map the Gap study showed that about 18% of children in Erie County are food insecure. That equates to about 34,000 children.

Anne McKenna, the marketing director for FeedMore Western New York, said the pandemic caused a spike in the people using the food bank.

“I would say we’ve seen a rise in services overall,” McKenna said. “Over the past year, whether it’s, you know, children in need of food assistance, older adults in need of home delivered meals. Overall we’ve seen a very significant increase during the global pandemic.”

Additionally, McKenna said that the poverty amplified by COVID-19 led to the high numbers of food insecure children.

“The level of poverty in Western New York, as well as the inequitable resources that are available to families who are already struggling really contribute to childhood food insecurity,” McKenna said.

Child food insecurity extends beyond Western New York. The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims there could be as many as 12 million children nationwide that battle hunger. Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school programs for the Food Research and Action Center, said food insecurity can have serious negative physical consequences for children.

“Kids who are food insecure are more likely to be less healthy,” FitzSimons said. “They’re more likely to miss days of school. They’re more likely to be ill. They’re more likely to be hospitalized. It has a pretty dramatic impact on kids’ homes.”

FitzSimons also said food insecurity can cause mental health issues for children.

“They’re more likely to be depressed,” FitzSimons said. “They’re more likely to have anxiety in the classroom. Kids are more likely to misbehave if they’re hungry.”

Obesity is another possible result of food insecurity among children. According to the New York State Health Department, about 36% of middle school and high school students are classified as obese in Western New York. This is significantly higher than the national average of roughly 21%.

FitzSimons said there are a number of factors stemming from food insecurity that can lead to obesity.

“A lot of low income communities are food deserts where they may not have a grocery store and it’s harder to access fruits and vegetables,” FitzSimons said. “And there’s a cyclical nature around food insecurity where at the beginning of the month, families might be in a better place. But by the end of the month, they are cutting back on meals or cutting back on the amount of food that is part of a meal.”

Despite the magnitude of the problem, McKenna said that both local and national food banks are expecting a significant number of people to use food banks for the next five-seven years.

“It’s one thing to lose your job and start falling behind, but trying to catch back up is very difficult,” McKenna said. “And food is something that we are able to provide to help these people get back on their feet. Sometimes it can be really difficult to find another job that can actually replace that position. There’s a lot of factors that go into it. But we do expect that this is going to last quite a long time.”

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