Alice Carter knows that hunger hurts. An unemployed grandmother in Cheyenne, Wyo., she took it upon herself to raise her two grandchildren without help. She recently told me about a time when there were only oranges and someone fed her. Not just for one meal. But for a few meals and for a few days.
Carter is one of more than 25 million people in the U.S. who last month reported experiencing food insecurity — meaning they sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat.
Her story is all too common, and an example of a deeply troubling trend in our nation’s fight against hunger. More than 2.5 million children in the United States are being raised in “stepparent” or primary caregiver households. Almost by default, these families – often headed by grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins or even close family friends – require special care and extra support. But a disproportionate number of them go hungry. With more than 250,000 children in the United States losing a parent or primary caregiver to COVID-19, the number of grandparent families in our country will continue to increase. We must commit to ensuring that hunger does not grow with them.
My organization, Generations United, released its annual report on our grandparents this month. This year’s report focuses on how and why hunger and grandparents are so intertwined. Unfortunately, we had good reason to pay such attention. A quarter of grandparent-headed households experienced food insecurity in 2019-2020, more than double the national rate. The rate of food insecurity among elderly (age 60+) grandparent-headed and no-parent households is three times higher than in similar households without children.
Let me be clear: Grandparents are the best option for children who cannot be raised by parents. Research shows that compared to children raised with relatives, children raised by relatives have better mental and behavioral health outcomes, greater stability, and deeper roots. They feel love.
So why do so many grandparents not have enough to eat? Our report found that often it’s because caregivers step into this role unexpectedly and don’t plan for the cost of raising a child on their own medication or rent. In addition, more than half of grandmotherly households are in southern states, where food insecurity is highest, and large numbers live in rural areas where food sources and transportation options may be scarce. Grandfathered families are people of color who disproportionately suffer adverse health outcomes, including food insecurity, from systemic racism and discrimination.
In September, the Biden administration released the first-ever national strategy to address hunger, with a goal of eliminating it completely within a decade. We endorse a number of the report’s recommendations – from expanding free school meals to reinstating a more generous Child Tax Credit – that will help all families avoid the trap of hunger. We are especially pleased to see report recommendations tailored specifically to grandparents and children, such as grandparents raising grandchildren, to maximize enrollment in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits—grandparents make up less than half of primary households. Those eligible for SNAP (link) – and increased funding for nutrition programs under the Older Americans Act.
Given the urgent and unique challenges facing grandparents, we must make changes now. Expanding “Kinship Navigator” programs connect more grandparents to food and nutrition assistance, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program (WIC) for women, infants, and children they may not know or otherwise have difficulty accessing. The United States Department of Agriculture and state health agencies should prioritize making more grandparents eligible for this assistance by creating a child-only SNAP benefit based on the child’s needs, not household income, and ensuring automatic access to free school meals. Ensuring that materials in outreach programs meet diversity, equity, and inclusion standards will maximize their impact for those most in need.
As families across America prepare to enjoy their Thanksgiving bounty, it is our duty to remember the children whose grandparents could only pass oranges off someone else’s plate. A grandmother or other close relative who steps in to raise a child when a parent is unable represents the best of humanity. We owe them our best in return, and that starts with ensuring that every grandparent can put enough food on the table for their children to grow and thrive.
Donna Butts is the Executive Director of Generations United. Twitter: @GensUnited.