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Expert Perspective

How Nutrition Programs Can Better Prevent Hunger Among Grandfamilies

Donna Butts

Executive Director, Generations United


January 18th, 2023


Early last fall, the White House hosted a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, the first in more than 50 years. Just a few weeks later, Generations United (GU) issued a report finding that hunger and food insecurity particularly impacts grandfamilies—families in which children are raised by grandparents, other relatives, and family friends without parents present. The report, based on data provided by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), showed that these caregivers face unique challenges, and federal programs are failing to meet their needs at a time when pandemic-era supports are waning, food shortages are prevalent, and inflation remains stubbornly high. 

We asked Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, to share insights from the 2022 State of Grandfamilies report. Butts has worked for more than 30 years to promote the wellbeing of children, youth, and older adults.

What did your latest report on grandfamilies find?

We decided to focus this year’s report on an issue we knew anecdotally was affecting grandfamilies: food insecurity. We’re extremely grateful to FRAC for providing the data that allowed us to illustrate the numbers behind the stories we’d been hearing from grandfamilies across the country. Food insecurity means these families do not have the resources they need to have consistent and reliable access to enough food to live an active, healthy life. The impact is severe: it can harm the health, nutrition, and economic security of children and adults. It has particularly harmful effects on children.

The data was striking: 25 percent of grandparent-headed households with grandchildren and no parent present experienced food insecurity between 2019 and 2020. That’s 60 percent higher than the rate of all households with children (25% vs. 15%). Among older (aged 60+) grandparent-headed households with grandchildren and no parents, the rate of food insecurity was more than three times higher than the rate of similar households (adults 60+) with no children (22% vs. 7%).

Why are grandfamilies at increased risk for food insecurity?

The most important context for this report is that research has shown again and again that grandfamilies are the best option for children who can’t be raised by their parents. Compared to children in foster care with nonrelatives, children raised by relatives have better mental and behavioral health outcomes, greater stability, and a stronger sense of belonging. They are more likely to report feeling loved. However, taking on full-time care of a child, often unexpectedly, can lead to new or increased financial challenges for caregivers, including a lack of affordable childcare, increased cost of nutritious food, or a loss of housing or employment.

One grandfamily caregiver featured in the report, Alice Carter, said that when she stepped in to raise two grandchildren on her own, she lost her job because she couldn’t travel to work sites without childcare.

Things got so bad that Carter would show up to friends’ houses around dinnertime, hoping they would include her grandchildren in the meal, and once she only had oranges to feed the children—not just for one meal but for four days.

Donna Butts

What role do federal nutrition programs play in meeting grandfamilies’ needs?

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Women, Infants and Children (WIC); and school meals are incredibly beneficial to grandfamilies, but caregivers often struggle to access these programs.

Donna Butts

For example, SNAP eligibility is based on household income, with no option to base it on the income of the child only. Many grandfamilies have fixed incomes or household incomes slightly too high to qualify, yet struggle to adequately feed the children they are raising while also addressing their own needs. Grandfamilies are also not automatically income-eligible for WIC or free and reduced-price school meals. If a child had been receiving WIC benefits while living with a parent, it’s difficult to transfer those when a grandfamily caregiver takes over. And, since a large number of grandfamilies live in rural areas or other areas where there are limited or no summer programs, children in grandfamilies have limited access to participating in summer meal sites.

How can federal nutrition programs better serve grandfamilies?

Our report outlines many ways that these programs can help grandfamilies, including by: 

  • supporting the development and use of kinship navigator programs to connect grandfamilies to food and nutrition supports; 
  • making a “child-only” SNAP benefit that is based on the needs of the child as opposed to household income; 
  • improving WIC outreach to help reach more grandfamilies and connect them with benefits; 
  • ensuring automatic access to free and reduced-price school meals; and 
  • helping grandfamilies cover meal costs through a nationwide summer electronic benefit transfer program.  

We need to step up, as these grandfamilies have done, and ensure that caregivers are not penalized for raising a child who needs them, and that children aren’t penalized because their caregivers aren’t able to access food.

Donna Butts

About the Author

Donna Butts
Executive Director, Generations United
Donna Butts is the Executive Director of Generations United, a nonprofit organization that strengthens practices and policies to benefit all generations.

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