Hunger hurts. Just ask Alice Carter. When she got a call from the Wyoming Department of Family Services (DFS) telling her that her daughter’s parental rights had been severed from her grandson, the department asked if Alice would take him. Without hesitating, she stepped up to raise him and later her granddaughter, too. Her decision was transformative and kept her grandchildren out of foster care.
At the time, Alice was a welder, a job that paid good money but required her to travel to work sites. Raising her grandchildren meant she had to quit her job because she couldn’t find reliable care for them while she was away at job locations. Alice lost her home because she couldn’t pay rent, and for more than a year, they lived in her car and struggled to find food.
“I tried to appear at friends’ houses around dinner time so they would include my grandchildren. Sometimes people would give us food that had been in their refrigerator for two weeks, but it was better than nothing. Someone gave us a bag of oranges and we ate nothing but oranges for four days,” Alice says.
Sadly, Alice’s story is not unique. Generations United’s new report sheds light on families like Alice’s. It examines why grandfamilies, families in which children are raised by relatives or family friends without their parents in the home, often face high rates of hunger and food insecurity and recommends ways our policies can better support them.
‘Between 2019 and 2020, 25% of grandparent-headed households with grandchildren and no parent present experienced food insecurity.’
The findings are startling. Generations United’s 2022 State of Grandfamilies report found that between 2019 and 2020, 25% of grandparent-headed households with grandchildren and no parent present experienced food insecurity. This is more than twice the national rate. It’s also 60% higher than that of all households with children (25% vs. 15%). Yet at the same time, in 2019 less than half of low-income grandfamilies accessed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as SNAP.
In the report, grandfamily caregivers share personal experiences and struggles with feeding their families. The impact is severe and can harm the health, nutrition and economic security of children and adults.
“You know, if you only have $10 to spend, you really can’t afford to go out and buy stuff for a healthy salad. You can buy beans and rice and chicken nuggets,” says Kathy Coleman, a grandfamily caregiver and director of the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Resource Center of Louisiana.
“It would be a whole lot cheaper, but it’s not really beneficial to the children. But when you’re in that situation, where all you’re trying to do is feed these little babies’ hungry tummies, you do whatever you can to stretch your money and, to be quite honest, sometimes it’s not the most nutritional food.”
Factors Putting Grandfamilies at Risk
Grandfamilies are at increased risk of food insecurity due to factors such as poverty, racial discrimination, disability, marriage status, employment status, geography and accessibility.
More than half (54%) of grandparent-headed households live in the South—states that tend to have food insecurity rates above the national average. Moreover, a large number of grandparent-headed households live in rural areas and are likely to experience food insecurity at a higher rate, in part because food sources often are further away from home and transportation options are sparse.
Due to cultural values and proud traditions, grandfamilies are disproportionately African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, and, in some areas, Latino. Yet, years of systemic racism and discrimination have led to disproportionate rates of food insecurity, as well as difficulties accessing support systems and inequitable supports for grandfamily caregivers and the children they raise. Additionally, 31% of grandchildren being raised by their grandparents in a grandparent-headed household are living below the poverty level, compared to 16% of all children nationwide.
Grandfamilies Face Greater Barriers Accessing Federal Nutrition Programs
Federal food and nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and free and reduced-price school meals serve as a lifeline for millions of families struggling with hunger and food insecurity, but many grandfamilies face unique challenges when trying to access these services.
Grandfamily caregiver Linda Lewis from Oklahoma lives off her Social Security benefit and receives Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
“It’s tight,” she says. “I have to buy school uniforms and shoes out of that, too. We get SNAP, but the benefit amount is low and that doesn’t go nowhere.”
Linda finds herself visiting food pantries once a month for additional support, along with receiving meals from Meals on Wheels, which she says is helpful.
Benefits like SNAP should be based upon the income of the child only. Older adults shouldn’t be penalized because they built up assets for retirement.
Children living with an unlicensed kinship foster care parent are not automatically eligible for WIC benefits, though they may be automatically eligible through other avenues. If a child has been receiving support from WIC while living with a parent, when a grandparent caregiver takes over raising the child, WIC benefits are not always easily transferred or given to the caregiver or child.
Though SNAP is beneficial for grandfamilies, the application process can be difficult to navigate. Eligibility is based on household income, with no option to base it on the income of the child only. Many grandfamilies have household incomes slightly too high to qualify or they have assets they’ve saved for retirement.
“When you’re a grandparent or caregiver raising children who are not your own, you don’t always meet the low-income eligibility in their state to qualify for SNAP,” says Kathy. “And in doing so, it hinders you from having the ability to have the nutritious food that you want and enough food to feed the family.”
Policy Recommendations to Support Grandfamilies
We can and must take steps toward providing grandfamilies with access to these proven, cost-effective programs they need to increase their family’s food security. These include:
- Create a “child-only” SNAP benefit that does not consider household income in making eligibility determinations and, instead, is based upon the income of the child only. Older adults shouldn’t be penalized because they built up assets for retirement.
- Support the development and use of kinship navigator programs that provide information, referral and follow-up services to grandparents and other relatives raising children to link them to the benefits and supports that they and/or the children need. These programs work and should exist in every state.
- Ensure automatic access to free and reduced-price school meals for all children, which would benefit those living in grandfamilies and help grandfamilies to cover meal costs when school is out to help fill the meal gap during the summer when millions of children lose access to school meals.
- Create joint meal programs for grandfamily caregivers and the children they raise. It was startling to learn during the pandemic that programs could deliver meals to older adults but not to the children living with them, and that programs could feed children but not the grandparents raising them who were standing beside them.
When children can’t be raised by their parents, they fare better with their grandparents than do children raised by nonrelatives in foster care. They have better mental health and behavioral health outcomes, higher levels of stability and a greater sense of belonging. They say they feel loved.
As a nation, we must ensure that no grandfamily experiences hunger and food insecurity. Grandfamilies like Alice Carter’s must no longer feel isolated and alone as they step up to raise a relative’s or a friend’s children. Any grandfamily should know, immediately, where to go for help. And help should be easily accessible to them.
Donna Butts is executive director of Generations United in Washington, DC.