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Need Amid Plenty: Richest US Counties Are Overwhelmed by Surge in Child Hunger
Alexandra Sierra hugs her daughter
Alexandra Sierra and one of her daughters hug outside their home in Bergen County, New Jersey, on March 9. (Caroline Gutman/for KHN)

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

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.

Portrait of Alexandra Sierra and her children
As covid’s financial fallout has pushed child hunger to record levels, Alexandra Sierra of Bergen County, New Jersey, says she doesn’t know what her family would do without the food they get from a local pantry.(Caroline Gutman/for KHN)

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.

Lineup of cars outside a food pantry
Cars line up to receive food boxes at the Center for Food Action in Englewood, New Jersey, earlier this month. The center helped 40,500 households last year, up from 23,000 the year before.(Caroline Gutman/for KHN)
A food pantry volunteer collects information from a driver
A volunteer collects information from drivers lined up to receive the food boxes.(Caroline Gutman/for KHN)

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.’”

A volunteer prepares food packages for distribution at the Center for Food Action in Englewood, New Jersey, on March 9. (Caroline Gutman/for KHN)
Food pantry volunteers prepare packages of food
Volunteers with the center prepare food packages for distribution. (Caroline Gutman/for KHN)
Food pantry volunteers load food into cars
Volunteers load food packages into clients’ cars in Englewood, New Jersey.(Caroline Gutman/for KHN)

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.

Portrait of Alexandra Sierra
Alexandra Sierra and her husband had never earned a lot of money, but things grew more dire for their family during the pandemic. Sierra, of Bergen County, New Jersey, had to leave her Amazon warehouse job when her kids’ school went remote. Her husband stopped driving for Uber when trips became scarce and he feared getting covid on top of his asthma.(Caroline Gutman/for KHN)

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