Concern Grows About Food Security For Arizona Kids
LAUREN GILGER: As we've seen so many Arizonans lose their job as a result of the pandemic and the economy remains dire, more people are going hungry. Food insecurity has remained at elevated levels since the pandemic began, according to the Brookings Institution. And for kids, the situation is even worse. Their analysis finds there are about 14 million children in the country without enough food to eat. That's nearly three times as many as there were in 2008 at the peak of the Great Recession. So how is this playing out here in Arizona, and without schools in session for longer than normal, where can children here get access to food? For answers to those questions and more, I got a hold of Angie Rodgers, president and CEO of the Association of Arizona Food Banks. And we started with the numbers. Do we know how bad the problem is here? How many Arizona children are facing food insecurity and hunger because of the pandemic?
ANGIE RODGERS: We have some good numbers. In, in a typical month, school meals provide about 600,000 children with access to meals at school, so those kids are able to receive free and reduced price meals during the school year in a typical month. So in a typical month, schools would provide about 14 million meals to kids. And even with the flexibilities that [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] (USDA) has given the state of Arizona, as well as other states across the country for grab-and-go meal service or multiple meals at one time. We know that there were nearly four million fewer meals were served in April, according to the Department of Education. So we know the impact that this is having on getting meals to children. And we know that a corresponding increase in other programs like access to food banks, we've seen more and more families come to food banks and certainly more families coming to SNAP. So we know that some of those children that aren't getting access to school meals are coming to food banks. We also know that some of the children that aren't getting school meals at their school are getting benefits through SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. So we know they're getting assistance in some other form, but we also know that there is a number of children who are struggling to make sure they get a consistent source of nutrition.
GILGER: So childhood hunger in particular affected there. And it sounds like there are some specific challenges. Is it just as simple as sort of kids not being in the normal schools or summer settings that they're in, and therefore not having the same kind of access to those free and reduced meals?
RODGERS: I think it's a couple of things. First of all, there's confusion. Parents aren't sure if their school is open, if they're providing meals. There's a lack of education. And we've been involved in a number of efforts to try and help with improving education about school meals right now. I think, too, transportation is a challenge. Now we're talking about getting children to schools at maybe not opportune times. You're not dropping your child off in the morning and then picking them up at the end of the day, you're having to go to school at maybe a lunchtime period and, and picking up those meals. That's a little different formula than we're used to. And I think finally, the heat always plays into it. You know, our children who are older and may be left at home to care for younger siblings, are they going to be able to walk four or five blocks to their school? Will they be able to get younger children to meals if they don't attend school at that site? So, again, confusion, transportation and heat — all barriers to getting kids meals.
GILGER: Yeah, yeah. Were there obstacles that existed before the pandemic that are just sort of being exacerbated now?
RODGERS: Absolutely. We always had a challenge of, of making sure that every child in the school got fed. And what we would like to do now is start to advocate for more of a universal feeding model. We know that children are in school seven or eight hours a day and making sure they have access to meals to make sure they can pay attention in class, get good grades and obviously have less visits to the school nurse — those are all reasons why you'd want to be able to feed kids in schools.
GILGER: Yeah. So let's talk then about resources. What resources are available to help alleviate childhood hunger, especially here in the Valley, and for that matter, to help get food and meals to their families?
RODGERS: Well, let's start with the one that's closest to my heart, which is the food banks. So the Arizona Food Bank Network has a website. You can go there: www.azfoodbanks.org. We're trying to keep that is up-to-date as possible, but we do encourage you to call first. You go there, you type in your ZIP code, we'll be able to pop up the list of food banks that are available in your community. Two, making sure that you apply for SNAP, not just for yourself, but for your children. We're advocating for a 15% boost in that maximum monthly benefit so that more families get a little bit of extra help now that food prices are up just a little bit and you're having to pay for other additional services to make sure you get meals to you instead of you necessarily going to the grocery store. And the final thing for, for kids is the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, which is a really fancy way of basically saying, "We want to make sure that you have enough money to be able to buy food in grocery stores." And in May, families received a pandemic EBT card in the mail. It reached a little over 570,000 school children. They're able to take those benefit, about $315, and spend them in grocery stores in the next couple of months. We're really trying to make sure that all eligible children receive them and that they know how to use them.
GILGER: Schools I know have had those summer feeding programs running, like you mentioned, but they have to be sort of transitioned, I'm assuming as the school year starts. Like, what might that mean for demand at the food banks, like what, what kind of pressure might that put on you?
RODGERS: We don't yet know what that kind of pressure will look like. Typically, when children return to schools, food banks go down a little bit because, of course, then children have a more regular access to those meals. However, we're unsure at this time what this is going to mean for us in the future, because if those children aren't attending school, will they still be getting those meals? Will they still return to normalcy? And what options do schools have in providing those meals? They typically don't, if they're not returning to to in-site or in-person schooling, what is that going to look like for a child who is at home all day and may not get that meal?
GILGER: Yeah. Are there resources in place, Angie, that might not last much longer? That are, that are slated to go away?
RODGERS: There are a number of waivers that were in place for the summer feeding programs that will not continue past August at this time. We're encouraging Congress and the USDA to continue those waivers, but we don't yet know, and I think that leaves schools in a difficult position of trying to communicate what's going to happen to parents when they don't yet know.
GILGER: All right. That is Angie Rodgers, president and CEO of the Association of Arizona Food Banks, joining us to talk about childhood hunger and the way it's been affected by the pandemic. Angie, thank you so much for the time. We appreciate it.
RODGERS: Thank you so much.