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Officials worry pandemic could increase food insecurity for children

Officials worry pandemic could increase food insecurity for children

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About 20 percent of children in Catawba County were living in food-insecure homes before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, according to the latest data released.

The pandemic could be putting even more stress on those families and putting others at risk of not being able to put food on the table, according to NC Child, a nonprofit that releases annual data about children and families in North Carolina.

The latest data shows almost 48 percent of the roughly 34,600 children in Catawba County lived in poor or low-income households as of 2018, the most recent information available. The number is slightly up from 2017, and the pandemic could worsen the situation though the long-term impacts are still unknown, Catawba County Social Services Director Karen Harrington said.

“There is no question that the pandemic is having an impact on children and families,” Harrington said. “We know many residents are experiencing increased financial stress due to lost jobs or income.”

The percentage of children living in low-income homes in Catawba County in 2018 is in line with statewide data, NC Child Executive Director Michelle Hughes said in the release. Both the numbers may worsen in the pandemic.

“Widespread job losses have meant that many more families are now sliding into dangerous territory,” Hughes said in the release. “That’s concerning because of the cascade of other traumatic events for kids that can come along with poverty, from losing your home to a parent struggling with depression.”

The effect of living in a food-insecure home can be profound on children, Harrington said. It can impact development and education and lead to chronic illness or poor health, she said.

Harrington said she’s seen a steep increase in the need for food in Catawba County since the effects of COVID-19 began impacting the area. Applications for public food assistance went up by 85 percent from January to April, with 1,442 applications in April, Harrington said.

In response, local nonprofits and schools have increased their efforts to provide food and assistance in the community, providing tens of thousands of meals to those in needs, Harrington said.

“Local community service agencies have rallied together to ensure those who need food the most can get it immediately,” she said.

The pandemic has also highlighted the need for health-care coverage, according to NC Child. Some families have lost the coverage they had under their jobs as unemployment and layoffs skyrocketed in North Carolina.

Before COVID-19, 5.9 percent of children in Catawba County were uninsured in 2018. That’s higher than the state average of 5 percent. The number is also up from 2017, when it was 3.7 percent, according to NC Child.

Harrington said social services is watching for a spike in applications for public medical assistance due to COVID-19 job losses but she has not yet seen one.

A food-insecure home offers reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet with little or no indication of reduced food intake, according to the USDA.

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