Need Amid Plenty: Richest US Counties Are Overwhelmed by Surge in Child Hunger

By Laura Ungar, Kaiser Health News Midwest Editor/Correspondent. Originally published at Kaiser Health News.

Alexandra Sierra carried boxes of food to her kitchen counter, where her 7-year-old daughter, Rachell, stirred a pitcher of lemonade.

“Oh, my God, it smells so good!” Sierra, 39, said of the bounty she’d just picked up at a food pantry, pulling out a ready-made salad and a container of soup.

Sierra unpacked the donated food and planned lunch for Rachell and her siblings, ages 9 and 2, as a reporter watched through FaceTime. She said she doesn’t know what they’d do without the help.

The family lives in Bergen County, New Jersey, a dense grouping of 70 municipalities opposite Manhattan with about 950,000 people whose median household income ranks in the top 1% nationally. But Sierra and her husband, Aramon Morales, never earned a lot of money and are now out of work because of the pandemic.

The financial fallout of covid-19 has pushed child hunger to record levels. The need has been dire since the pandemic began and highlights the gaps in the nation’s safety net.

While every U.S. county has seen hunger rates rise, the steepest jumps have been in some of the wealthiest counties, where overall affluence obscures the tenuous finances of low-wage workers. Such sudden and unprecedented surges in hunger have overwhelmed many rich communities, which weren’t nearly as ready to cope as places that have long dealt with poverty and were already equipped with robust, organized charitable food networks.

Data from the anti-hunger advocacy group Feeding America and the U.S. Census Bureau shows that counties seeing the largest estimated increases in child food insecurity in 2020 compared with 2018 generally have much higher median household incomes than counties with the smallest increases. In Bergen, where the median household income is $101,144, child hunger is estimated to have risen by 136%, compared with 47% nationally.

That doesn’t mean affluent counties have the greatest portion of hungry kids. An estimated 17% of children in Bergen face hunger, compared with a national average of around 25%.

But help is often harder to find in wealthier places. Missouri’s affluent St. Charles County, north of St. Louis, population 402,000, has seen child hunger rise by 69% and has 20 sites distributing food from the St. Louis Area Foodbank. The city of St. Louis, pop. 311,000, has seen child hunger rise by 36% and has 100 sites.

“There’s a huge variation in how different places are prepared or not prepared to deal with this and how they’ve struggled to address it,” said Erica Kenney, assistant professor of public health nutrition at Harvard University. “The charitable food system has been very strained by this.”

Eleni Towns, associate director of the No Kid Hungry campaign, said the pandemic “undid a decade’s worth of progress” on reducing food insecurity, which last year threatened at least 15 million kids.

And while President Joe Biden’s covid relief plan, which he signed into law March 11, promises to help with anti-poverty measures such as monthly payments to families of up to $300 per child this year, it’s unclear how far the recently passed legislation will go toward addressing hunger.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. “But it’s hard to know what the impact is going to be.”

Need Grows in Places of Plenty

After the pandemic struck, the federal government boosted benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and offered Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer cards to compensate for free or reduced-price school meals while children were schooled from home.

Sierra’s family saw their SNAP benefits of about $800 a month rise slightly and got two of those P-EBT payments, worth $434 each. But at the same time, they lost their main sources of income. Sierra had to leave her Amazon warehouse job when the kids’ school went remote, and Morales stopped driving for Uber when trips became scarce and he feared getting covid on top of his asthma.

Federal relief wasn’t enough for them and many others. So they flocked to food pantries.

In theory, pantries and the food banks that supply them are part of an emergency system designed for short-term crises, Schwartz said. “The problem is, they’ve actually become a standard source of food for a lot of people.”

In Bergen County, the Center for Food Action helped 40,500 households last year, up from 23,000 the year before. In Eagle County, Colorado, where the tony ski resort Vail is located, the Community Market food bank saw its client load nearly quadruple to 4,000. And outside Boston, in the affluent Massachusetts county of Norfolk — where Feeding America data shows child hunger jumped from an estimated 6% of kids to 16% — Dedham Food Pantry’s clients tripled to 1,800.

“This is just out of control compared to other times,” said Lynn Rogal, vice president of the Dedham pantry, which opened in 1990.

Pantry managers said a disproportionate number of clients are from minority groups. Many lost jobs in the eviscerated service sector that undergirds the wealthier parts of their counties. Julie Yurko, CEO of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, said up to half of her current clients have never sought help before.

“In early January, we had a white minivan pull up with three kids, 5 and younger. It ran out of gas sitting there,” Yurko said. “The mom was sobbing, and her beautiful children were sitting there watching her.”

Kelly Sirimoglu, spokesperson for New Jersey’s Center for Food Action, said the stigma around seeking help can be worse in wealthy areas. She said some people tell her, “I never thought I would be in line for food.”

Advocates said the reluctance to seek help means the need is likely even larger than it appears.

Katie Wilson of St. Charles, Missouri, said she heard about a food pantry run by the Sts. Joachim & Ann Care Service from a friend of a friend. She almost didn’t go. The single mom of two children, 11 and 9, lost her job as a hotel auditor in June and tried to squeak by without her income for two months.

“We found ourselves in a situation where it was a ‘heat or eat’ kind of thing,” said Wilson, 42, describing having to choose between heating her home or buying food. “It took me looking around and saying, ‘There is nothing to eat.’”

Struggling to Meet the Need

As hunger has become more visible, donations to food charities have risen. But they don’t address the core problem of an infrastructure that doesn’t match the new need. Some pantries are open just a few hours a week in church basements, a far cry from those that operate regularly and look like supermarkets. Many small pantries struggled to shift to outdoor food distribution during the pandemic or find new helpers when the few, often senior, volunteers felt unsafe doing the work.

“It definitely is harder in these places,” said Yurko, whose food bank distributes to Kendall County, Illinois, which has just three pantries for its population of 129,000. “The safety nets are not as robust.”

A strong safety net also requires pantries to cooperate with one another and the broader array of local social services. That’s been happening for years in Flint, Michigan, said Denise Diller, executive director of Crossover Downtown Outreach Ministry, which runs a pantry. Agencies and community leaders banded together in 2014 when lead poisoned the drinking water.

“When covid occurred, we were already kind of ready,” Diller said.

So was Atlanta. As in Flint, hunger was never hidden there; 15% of children in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, faced hunger before the pandemic. After covid suspended volunteer shifts, the Atlanta Community Food Bank asked the Georgia National Guard to help sort, pack, warehouse and deliver food to help meet the needs of the estimated 22% of kids experiencing hunger. The food bank also partnered with seven school districts on more than 30 mobile pantries.

Such coordination and connections were lacking in Bergen County, where 80 pantries worked mostly in isolation when the pandemic hit, County Commissioner Tracy Zur said. “They weren’t collaborating. They were going along the same path they had for decades,” she said. “There was this need to break out of the old way of doing things and work together to be more impactful.”

Zur spearheaded the creation of a food security task force in July, reaching out to municipal and faith leaders. Goals include feeding people, connecting them to other services and turning some emergency food programs into full-fledged pantries. “Building an infrastructure is painstaking and ongoing,” she said.

Now, Zur said, pantries are starting to share with one another when one gets a large donation of perishable items such as eggs or milk.

With the need so widespread, residents do much the same.

During a recent pantry trip, Sierra, the New Jersey mom, opened the trunk of her 1999 Toyota and rummaged through the two big boxes volunteers had just placed there. She pointed to eggs, chicken, bread, butter, cheese and apples, observing, “I have more than I need.”

But she said it would never go to waste. Any extra would go to neighbors and their hungry children.

Midwest correspondent Cara Anthony and data editor Elizabeth Lucas contributed to this story.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. mrsyk

    Key paragraph.
    “ In theory, pantries and the food banks that supply them are part of an emergency system designed for short-term crises, Schwartz said. “The problem is, they’ve actually become a standard source of food for a lot of people.””
    Because charities instead of government support.

  2. Randall Flagg

    Let’s just keep spending all that money on our misadventures around the world though. I believe in a strong defense but just that, defense. I would like to hear the warmongers justify the ridiculous amounts of money spent on that, yet we can take care of our own to a basic minimum. What the hell happened to this country over the years…

    1. Massinissa

      “What the hell happened to this country over the years…”

      4 to 5 decades of neoliberalism will do that. Its like the nation-state equivalent of being addicted to a drug. Makes you feel better in the short term: Reagan America worked great! In the 80s. Long term everything gets screwed over, health wise.

      1. JBird4049

        Ronnie Raygun was patriotic meth. The only good thing he did as the President was getting the number of American and Soviet nuclear warheads reduced.

  3. roxan

    Typical banana republic, spending on war and ridiculous, dysfunctional but grandiose weapons, usually shown off in parades– lorded over by a rich oligarchy–while people starve and live in hovels. However, a healthy well-fed population is the source of a nation’s strength, so we are well on the way to fading into a has-been.

  4. Bob Hertz

    Here is the real problem….

    “Sierra had to leave her Amazon warehouse job when the kids’ school went remote, and Morales stopped driving for Uber when trips became scarce and he feared getting covid on top of his asthma”.

    In other words, our skimpy unemployment insurance systems in man states, plus gaps in the pandemic special relief, plus the insufferable arrogance of closing the schools with no financial relief for parents, and here we are.

    Thanks for posting, this is indeed a tragedy.

  5. Bob

    Hmm —

    How about we sell a few F-35s ?

    At $ 89.2 million each selling just a few would feed many, many children.

    1. Synoia

      Umm, do they work well?

      You suggestion is a bit like offering a Swiss Army knife to a contractor, instead of a chest of the proper trade tools.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Umm, would anyone even buy them at all?

      Your suggestion is a bit like offering a Swiss Navy knife to a contractor, instead of any real tools at all whatsoever that even work the least tiny little bit.

      1. Pianicola

        US force them on their allies. An offer you can´t refuse, I guess. Anyway the money won´t go to childcare over there. They are very expensive. Follow Augustine´s law.

        “Law Number XVI: In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3-1/2 days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day”.

  6. The Rev Kev

    Sorry guys but this is Failed Nation stuff. I am one of those that happen to believe that it is the most fundamental duty of a State to protect children and pregnant women. Anything after that is a bonus if not an embellishment. America is not only the wealthiest country in the world but is also the wealthiest in history. And yet child hunger is tolerated. And just to add the bread slices to this s*** sandwich, there are about 800 billionaires in the US at the moment. How many of them could wake up one day and say to themselves: ‘You know what? I am going to abolish child hunger in America with my money and be remembered forever and even have statues raised to myself!’ But it never happens.

    1. tegnost

      America’s incredible success is going to require americans to have a vastly reduced standard of living to the point that they are equally as poverty stricken as the poors the world over. Globalisation really makes any other out come unfair, and we must globalize. Everyone being a poverty stricken gig worker is the plan. Here in this case an amazon worker and an uber driver, on the dole. In reality, I think the biden admin has just dusted off the plans that were to be unleashed under hillary, that’s one of the reasons it all seems so ham handed. The TPP was going to keep the world in our orbit and create supra national barriers to autonomy in order to stop what is in fact happening now where they are free to choose between china/russia and the US. From this perspective trump really screwed the plans of the despicables.

      1. Synoia

        America’s incredible past success….

        1. It in the past
        2. It was built on predation against the British Empire

        Who needs a German Enemy with friends who help with lend-lease, Cancel the German War debt, and not their “allies.” Combined with subverting the British Empires rule with a twisted version of self-rule – Governance dependent on not having US Sanctions, aka imperialism absent responsibility.

        This after dispossession the local US natives of the ancestral lands by force, and tricky legalities.

        1. tegnost

          I agree that it’s in the past but people ordering their entire life from amazon that I know think this is the beginning of our incredible greatness.

        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          From an American point of view, I would say . . . who needs a German Enemy with friends who trick you into supporting the wrong side in World War One?

    2. The S

      It’s not a failed nation, it’s how the US was always designed to work. It might have had some good years of P.R. and marketing after WWII but it was always a lie. The Constitution was written by a bunch of wealthy slavers that hated commoners and feared economic democracy and popular governance. The US became the wealthiest country by starving kids and killing people the world over; it was forced into a bit of wealth distribution for a few decades by multi-state steel strikes, the Bonus Army, armed miners unions, tenants unions, the Farmers Holiday movement, and the contrast of a Soviet Union that was advancing by leaps and bounds economically while the US festered in a depression. But whether it was the indigenous, the slaves, the Filipinos, the Haitians, the Chinese, the Nicaraguans, the Mexicans, the Hondurans, the Iranians, the Guatemalans, the Chileans, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, the Laotians, the Cambodians, the Russians, the Iraqis, the Libyans, the Syrians, or it’s own citizens, the US has always killed for money. If it runs out of places to take over and expand it’ll just starve the kids at home to make a buck. It’ll charge the poor overdraft fees for having no money then chalk that up as a financial service. It’ll have its state security forces kill you for a traffic stop and then beat every citizen en masse that dares to object. It’ll cannibalize the very infrastructure and fabric of society and hand it over to oligarchs and private equity. It’ll give all the wealth to people who charge usury and own embroidered pieces of paper but who don’t actually do anything useful or necessary. And the marks that watch US movies and television and news will believe that the US is somehow benevolent and that they can somehow bend the will of the rapacious through the very electoralism that the wealthy designed to keep the poor from having a say.

      Starving children. Children in concentration camps. Children forced into schools during a plague. These aren’t ‘oopsies.’ This is how the country is set up to run. Look at how much money the wealthy gained by letting a pandemic run wild. Look at how the entire investment class should have gone bankrupt in 2008 but instead workers were fired from jobs and cast out of their homes by the millions. Now the kids of those sacrificed are starving right next to the wealthy that should have gone bust. The affluent are literally taking food out of kids mouths because they won’t let their precious stocks or real estate go down in price one iota. The only good thing about kids starving in wealthy districts is that a Robin Hood won’t have to go to far to find money to give to those kids.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      The 800 billionaires consider child hunger in America to be one of their greatest achievements.

      The child hunger in America problem won’t be solved until the 800 billionaires and all their ideological supporters and economic servants have been ” rounded up and exterminated”, so to speak.

      1. JBird4049

        The scary thing about The S’s and your posts is that they are only slightly, very slightly hyperbolic.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          I think in the fullness of time a person or movement will arise to suggest this as a suited-for-purpose project of necessary social-political engineering.

          1. JBird4049

            Idpol with people losing their jobs for unapproved ideals, increasing hunger, economic “stimulus” that is decreasing even when it’s still bad, that pilot program for an extra $500 per month in Oakland that specifically excludes poor whites, or your comment about that farmer who had all his workers deported after his crops had been harvested, and it all just

            A steady pitter-patter of nastiness. Maybe there is a cabal of evil people that just wants evermore of everything even as the smoke keeps increasing. Best way to do it is to keep the worry, fear, and anger well fed.

  7. Palaver

    We must also worry about the quality of the nutrition. Cheap processed food sacrifices the long term health of these communities given their poor access to healthcare. The rich can afford to eat healthy and live longer. Class shouldn’t be a matter of life and death, but this is what America has become with its sham democracy.

    1. Maritimer

      Thank you, Palaver. All “food” is not equal. Nutrition should be the emphasis.

      In my jurisdiction, the Food Bank Industry encourages donations of packaged, processed, industrialized “food”. For example, fifty pounds of oats gives much more nutrition bang for the buck than the equivalent $$$ amount of Conglomerate Cereals.

      At my Conglomerate Stupormarket, they have a bin for unthinking donors to drop in “food” that was bought in the Stupor. I’ve seen poptarts, jars of frosting, jello, etc. all sorts of “food”. And why do I think the Stupormarket just recycles a lot of this stuff back onto their shelves, making a huge profit?

      Next time you donate, check out what your Food Bank is actually peddling and who runs it. Food Banks have become a huge Industry and we know what happens to huge Industries.

    2. Louis Fyne

      My mother gives rides to some of her friends (without expectation of any compensation cuz friendship). In return, some of the friends give random items from their weekly food bank allotment.

      the food is shelf-stable processed items with produce and baked goods nearing expiration from the local gourmet independent chain and the local Whole Foods.

      Manslow’s hierarchy of needs applies obviously and the food banks do truly heroic deeds daily, but long-term people can’t live healthy lives eating boxed Mac ‘n Cheese, PBJ sandwiches and organic cookies every single day.

      I say expand WIC spending and eligibility, but as I’m not too familiar with that program, dunno if that’ll do any good.

      1. JBird4049

        Expanding WIC is a good idea. Just like increasing SNAP would be good too.

        Somehow, it becomes moochers, addicts and other Bad People who all use the program with the very few problem people being shown on the tv. Of course, the primary reason people do try to convert their non-cash aid to cash is because of the need to pay for gas or utilities. People simply do not have enough cash money for every else that they need like gas or bus fare. There is book called $2.00 a day: Living On Almost Nothing In America that gives a better explanation than I can. I can say that while on paper there is sometimes enough aid stitching it all together and maintaining the necessary qualifications (aka means testing) can be a problem; the very people who need it the most are same people who often will have the hardest time jumping, hopping, rowing, and climbing all the blasted requirements and paperwork.

        Also, since the people who need it are among the least powerful politically it is easy for politicians to cut their aid to score political points. If the economy ever gets close to good, among the very first things that will be cut is food aid. It is almost inevitable.

  8. IdahoSpud

    Hungry Central American children in areas close to wealthy suburbs full of PMC types. Who could have suspected it would happen there?

    1. kareninca

      Yeah, the rich liberals I know dropped their housecleaners when the pandemic hit. I guess that those cleaning ladies just poofed out of existence with their kids; no need to feed them.

      1. Yves Smith

        Wow, if I were still in NYC, no way would I have done that. Open the friggin’ windows afterwards if you are worried. It’s not as if you are within 6′ of your cleaning person or they talk or sing while they are working.

  9. DTK

    The stamina and accuracy it takes to wield the cudgel of unequal access to the benefits of our money system should never be underestimated or misnamed; planned inequality.

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