Millions of Americans were already facing food insecurity. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

People wearing facemasks wait in line at a walk-up food bank in Los Angeles, Aug. 10, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

2020 was a year unlike any other — one defined by the unpredictable, unprecedented, and unimaginable. As we head into a new administration, our country remains as divided as ever, not only along political lines, but along sharp economic fault lines as well. Millions of low-income families will head into another season of hardship and uncertainty in 2021.

For far too many Americans, that uncertainty includes not knowing where their next meal will come from. At the heart of this crisis are children: they are the largest segment of the population facing hunger, malnutrition and even starvation. In the U.S. alone, it’s estimated that up to one in four children experienced food insecurity in 2020. That means there are up to 18 million children living in households unable to put food on the table each day — a devastating reality under any circumstances, but one that is exacerbated by the dual crises of COVID-19 and the economic downturn.

World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting food insecurity around the globe, meets those children every day, lining up with their parents for hours on end for a plate of food for their family. Children like 10-year-old Khalil in Los Angeles, who used to pick up meals with his father before deciding he too wanted to help the hungry.

“My favorite thing is when people are happy that we are giving out free food, because some people need it,” he says. “It makes my heart happy. It’s important for people to help each other because I know that all of us would like to feel treated the way you treat everyone else.”

Khalil is an inspiration but volunteers are not enough of a solution to our challenges. In fact, nonprofits that serve vulnerable populations on the frontlines — working in sectors such as food, healthcare and education — are facing enormous headwinds.  

Comic Relief US, the organization behind the Red Nose Day campaign to end child poverty, found that its nonprofit partners were facing roughly more than 20 percent revenue loss for 2020. And according to the New York Times, the nonprofit sector is the nation’s third-largest private employer, with 1.3 million nonprofits employing over 12 million people. These economic stresses combined with COVID-19’s impact on the most vulnerable populations, including children, have created a perfect storm for many nonprofits: a rising demand for frontline services while they face their own dire financial straits.

Today, we’re seeing the impact in a variety of ways, especially as it relates to food insecurity. For example, if a food bank is unable to operate or a childcare program closes, children who rely on free and nutritious meals will often go without a meal at all. Food insecurity has a lifelong effect: lower reading and math scores, more physical and mental health problems, more emotional and behavioral problems and a greater chance of obesity.

Food insecurity also strikes hardest at the most vulnerable populations. Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities are being impacted disproportionately at the intersection of COVID-19, structural racism and the economic crisis. According to USDA data, Black families are twice as likely as white families to lack access to adequate, healthy food, with 19.1 percent of Black households and 15.6 percent of Hispanic households suffering from food insecurity in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, these communities disproportionately serve in frontline jobs — putting themselves and their families in harm’s way each day without a safety net and the support they deserve.

As we leave a holiday season that left many families in desperate need, and with food insecurity still on the rise while the pandemic persists, our thoughts turn to how the year ahead will still be deeply challenging for millions of families facing hunger. Solutions to the tragedy of our children’s growing hunger lie in both policy and praxis. The CARES Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act have increased some food assistance benefits, including a level of financial support of SNAP benefits in the recently signed stimulus bill, but more must be done to off-set hunger’s long-term impacts. Leaders must work together to ensure food access such as bolstering local school nutrition programs and extending school nutrition waivers, ending time limits on SNAP, and ensuring safe and timely access to WIC programs, among other proposals. Hunger has no party line. Politics should not stand between children and their next meal. It is time to close the partisan divide for the sake of our children. 

It’s critical to understand that food can be a key part of the solution to our overlapping crises — in this pandemic, recession, and when our communities are confronting racial injustice. We can feed our vulnerable communities by activating the restaurants that are struggling to survive: paying cooks to feed the hungry and to heal the neighborhoods they serve. We can continue to fund and expand feeding programs and support our farmers while addressing malnutrition and hunger among children.

The scale of the crises we face today demands more than philanthropy. We urgently need the support of our elected leaders, of business executives, and donors big and small, if we want to build back better. And we must do it now, for the millions of children whose lives are in our hands.    

Nate Mook is the CEO of World Central KitchenLorelei Williams is the SVP of Grant Programs of Comic Relief US.

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