Addressing Hunger Among Homeless Children

A Q&A With Derrick Lambert, Senior Manager, Center for Best Practices, No Kid Hungry Campaign

Housing and food insecurity are two persistent realities in the lives of children that often go hand in hand. For the close to 1.4 million students who experience homelessness across the country, hunger is one of the many challenges they face that affect their ability to learn and thrive. Students who experience homelessness are more likely to go without breakfast and less likely to eat a healthy and balanced diet.

Fortunately, schools can play a fundamental role in providing these students with the resources that they need in order to overcome the detrimental effects of both hunger and homelessness. For many of these students, school may be their only source of stability, and free school meals may be their only reliable source of nourishment. Yet access to resources combating hunger and housing insecurity can vary depending on where a homeless student lives, how these programs are implemented, and whether homeless and hungry students are identified by schools in the first place. To mark Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, ICPH invited Derrick Lambert, Senior Manager at Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, to participate in a short Q&A to help shed light on these critical issues.

What does child hunger look like in America?

Today, one in seven kids in the U.S. lives with hunger—every day, in every community. More than 11 million children live in “food insecure” homes. That phrase may sound mild, but it means that those households don’t have enough food for every family member to lead a healthy life. This food insecurity can look like a lot of different things; a completely empty pantry and no money in the budget to stock it; parents skipping a meal just to make sure their child has a plate full of food; families who, at the end of the month, are faced with making the unthinkable decision between paying rent and buying groceries.

Today, one in seven kids in the U.S. lives with hunger—every day, in every community.

Millions of families are also living on the brink of hunger and living paycheck-to-paycheck, just one lost job, health crisis, or other unexpected expense away from being food-insecure. A study by the Federal Reserve shows that 4 in 10 Americans couldn’t come up with $400 for an emergency expense, like a car repair or medical bill, without selling something or borrowing money, setting them back months or even years. When these families look to cut expenses, it’s often the food budget that’s the easiest to tap into first.

Does No Kid Hungry have programs that work to provide food to housing insecure families? If so, are there any particular challenges to serving these families and children?

Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign works to increase access to federally-funded child nutrition programs, with a special focus on school breakfast, summer, and afterschool meals. For low-income kids, direct certification in free school meals is a crucial way to get the nutrition they need to grow up healthy and strong.

Participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which gives families a monthly grocery benefit, automatically certifies students to receive free school meals. Students who are homeless, migrant, runaway, or in foster care are also automatically certified to receive free school meals through this process of direct certification, which avoids the need for children and their families or caregivers to complete and return a school meals application. Direct certification also prevents eligible students from accruing “lunch debt” and potentially facing stigma for their inability to pay.

Kids who receive free school meals get better grades and are more likely to graduate and break the cycle of poverty.

School meals are a lifeline for children, not only providing protection from the pains of an empty stomach, but also avoiding the negative long-term consequences of food insecurity on their health and well-being. Kids who receive free school meals get better grades and are more likely to graduate and break the cycle of poverty.

However, there are challenges kids experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity face in receiving free school meals. Namely, for a school nutrition department to certify that a student is experiencing homelessness and thus eligible for free school meals, they must receive documentation from the school district’s homeless liaison. Given that these two bodies do not frequently communicate, the school nutrition department may be unaware that a student is experiencing homelessness. 

No Kid Hungry recommends that school nutrition departments and homeless liaisons establish regular data-sharing memoranda to ensure that eligible students are promptly enrolled in free school meals.

Learn more about food insecurity and SNAP benefits in NYC.

No Kid Hungry works across rural, suburban, and urban America. Could you tell us about some of the particular challenges of providing services in these different geographical settings? Are there differences in the levels of need experienced by families in rural, suburban, and urban communities?

Hunger can be found in every community, but a child’s zip code can determine how easily they access nutritious food in the summertime.

The Summer Food Service Program was designed to ensure that low-income kids get the nutrition they need when school is not in session. But there are a lot of barriers for kids and 6 out of 7 hungry children don’t get the meal they need in the summer.  

In rural communities, long distances or a lack of transportation to and from summer meal site locations may preclude children and families from taking part. Rural school districts, libraries, and other nonprofit entities may also be constrained—due to a limited tax base—in their capacity to support regularly scheduled enrichment or physical activity programming alongside meals, which is an identified best practice to boost participation and reduce stigma at meal sites. Alternatively, many low-income families live in communities that don’t qualify for summer meals at all. As a result, these families are effectively frozen out from participation in a program that is meant to fill the gap when their children lose access to school breakfast and lunch, putting a strain on already tight budgets.

Hunger can be found in every community, but a child’s zip code can determine how easily they access nutritious food in the summertime.

The good news is that there are common sense changes to existing programs that would allow more children and families to participate in summer meals. One especially promising approach is Summer EBT, which provides electronic benefits directly to eligible families to help with groceries. Summer EBT has been shown through research to reduce the incidence of very low food security among children by up to one-third and reached 90 percent of participating households. Summer EBT represents the most promising and well-documented innovation in summer child nutrition and would be especially beneficial for low-income children who live in highly rural communities.

Learn more about student homelessness in rural America.

What would you say are the biggest obstacles for families in attaining and providing nutritious food to their children? 

Poverty and food insecurity are complicated. But the problem isn’t that there’s not enough food in the U.S. We’re a nation fortunate to experience an abundance of it and we have child nutrition programs that work. What we don’t have in plenty is the political will to ensure that every eligible child is connected to those programs. In fact, these programs remain underutilized across the country.

In school, breakfast is not reaching all of the kids eligible for it. This meal is often served before the first bell rings, and family work schedules and kids’ fear of being seen as poor can block children from participating. But if schools shift the time breakfast is served, making it a seamless part of the school day, the program can reach more of the kids who need it. High poverty schools or districts can also adopt a policy called the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows them to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students. 

School meal programs have a big impact on families. They enable low-income parents to dedicate limited resources to other expenses like housing, healthcare and food at home for the family.

To hear more from Derrick, register to attend Beyond Housing 2020, where he will be participating in the panel discussion, Supporting Children Experiencing Homelessness in Rural America, Thursday, January 16, 2020 at 10:45 am.