Food insecurity seems to have risen during the pandemic. Why that’s critical for Philadelphia’s early learners.

Originally published on Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Felice Le-Scherban, assistant professor of epidemiology at Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health and the principal investigator for the Philadelphia site of Children’s Healthwatch, said higher levels of food insecurity can affect early learners’ development.

“Food insecurity among young children is associated with poor overall health, putting them at developmental risk. It’s also associated with more hospitalizations, and also, this may seem counterintuitive, but with a higher risk of obesity,” said Le-Scherban. “And this can be because sometimes food insecurity can lead to needing to prioritize just having enough calories and purchasing less nutritionally dense food with fewer vitamins and nutrients, which can be more expensive, as opposed to less expensive food that may be higher in calories but don’t provide as many nutrients.”

Local health and hunger experts say that while exact numbers have yet to be reported, the pandemic has most likely worsened what was already one of the highest child food insecurity rates in the country. According to Feeding America, Philadelphia’s 2018 child food insecurity rate was 24.2% and the projected 2021 rate is 28.6%.

Le-Scherban said their preliminary research shows a growing pattern. A network of pediatricians and researchers, Children’s Healthwatch (Philadelphia) surveys the caregivers of young children under the age of 4 while they are in medical center waiting areas, waiting for pediatric care.

In 2016, among families surveyed at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, 11.8% reported that their children were food insecure. Now preliminary research, which is still ongoing, shows a sharp shift.

Recent surveys of families that Children’s HealthWatch (Philadelphia) previously spoke to between 2018 and 2020 indicate “striking increases in food insecurity,” said Le-Scherban. She added that although the research is “preliminary” and was conducted mainly on North Philadelphia families, it can be applied generally.

“We do have information on child food insecurity in our COVID survey but have not analyzed it yet. However, based on the preliminary numbers that we have already seen with pretty dramatic increases in household food insecurity, I think it is very likely that child food insecurity is at least as high or higher than it was before the pandemic,” she said. “What we can absolutely say is we have seen increases in household food insecurity.”