Food insecurity in U.S. households with children increased to 17.3% in 2022, up from 12.5% the year before and 14.8% in 2020, according to federal research released Wednesday on household food security by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
Food insecurity among children, specifically, rose from 6.2% in 2021 to 8.8% in 2022. An increased percentage of children also experienced more severe food insecurity, up to 1% in 2022 from 0.7% in 2021.
Just over half of food insecure families reported gaining assistance through federal programs including the National School Lunch Program. The uptick in food insecurity occurred at a time when pandemic-era safety measures — like the child tax credit and universal school meals — were being scaled back, said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement.
The research shows that while pandemic-era waivers were in place between 2020 and 2021, food insecurity in households with children and food insecurity among children both decreased.
This finding comes amid other research showing participation in school meals generally decreased following the expiration of waivers, including one allowing universal school meals.
The number of after-school dinners served nationwide dropped by 23% between October 2021 and October 2022, by which time USDA waivers permitting all communities to serve after-school meals had expired, according to a report released earlier this week by the Food Research & Action Center.
The number of after-school sites serving food also dropped by 5,089 since the year prior, leaving 38,034 remaining sites in 2022.
That translated to fewer children served. While after-school programs served a relatively stable number of children between October 2019 and October 2021 — between 1.42 million and 1.49 million children— that number dipped to just 1.15 million in October 2022.
A similar drop was seen in breakfast and lunch programs. A report released in July by FRAC showed that 54% of 91 large school districts reported a decrease in both breakfast and lunches served.
Surveys from the U.S. Department of Education also showed that a significantly lower percentage of public schools participated in school meal programs in fall 2022 than in March 2022, when universal school meal waivers were still in place. The percentage of schools participating fell from 94% in March 2022 to 88% by October 2022.
Among the most common challenges schools cited were convincing parents to submit applications for free and reduced-price meals, as well as increased program costs.
Noticing the obstacles and the fallout, some states have stepped in to provide universal school meals.
By the start of the 2022-23 school year, California and Maine had passed legislation permanently establishing a universal school meal program. By the 2023-24 school year, an additional six states had joined.
Approximately half of the states are pushing for such policies, either through coalitions or proposed state legislation, according to FRAC's count that was updated this month.