Unintended consequences of the coronavirus precautions are hitting the Austin area: child hunger and malnutrition. The community has seen multiple school closures and closures of many programs related to providing food for infants, children and youths.
As pediatricians, we see up close how closures prevent infections and save lives. But many young people count on their schools, government and local nonprofits for the food they need to grow, learn and stay healthy. We need to come together as a community to protect infants, children and families with low income from the pandemic’s potential, indirect effects on nutrition.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, provides infant formula, breastfeeding support and food for the mothers of our youngest neighbors. In fact, WIC provides half of the formula infants receive in Texas. Before vouchers for formula or food packages can be given, though, WIC enrollment requires in-person screening and review.
Amid the pandemic, some WIC clinics may close and many families may face health or work restrictions preventing them from going to WIC clinics with their babies. Even when they have secured food vouchers, reports of hoarding and resultant shortages of infant formula and infant food products may make it difficult to obtain these products.
We must urgently push for simplified, online WIC enrollment and renewal. Public-private partnerships could tech-enable this effort. Austin’s technology business community should step up and share their much needed expertise and resources to help ensure families can access WIC during the pandemic and beyond.
For children in Texas, school meals are their only opportunity for a healthy meal during weekdays. Nationally, over 20 million free lunches are served each day and close to 12 million free breakfasts. More than 50% of school students in Texas are eligible for free lunches.
As schools close and extend spring breaks, many families are struggling to provide the same nutrition. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller recently announced Texas would allow schools to apply for permission to provide meals while schools are closed.
Unfortunately, applying for permission and processing applications take time, especially as school officials and state agencies are overwhelmed by other coronavirus-related work. Streamlining this process is critical to ensure children are being fed. Some communities are even providing drive-up meals for students, an idea that should be expanded rapidly with funding support from local and state governments.
Likewise, closing colleges and universities around Austin could have a profound effect on food availability for some students. Recent studies suggest as many as 25% of students at The University of Texas at Austin have some food insecurity, leading to skipped meals for financial reasons and potentially worse classroom performance.
Austin-area food banks and pantries should enact open-door policies for all children and youths to get food during school, college and university closures, following the lead of their colleagues in cities throughout the United States. And this is where the community can come in. Austinites can support our food banks and pantries on the front lines by contributing financial or food donations.
Moreover, this emergency should remind lawmakers to invest in year-round school feeding programs, which are critically important to the health and well-being of Texas’ future workforce.
The coronavirus crisis is complex. Most attention is appropriately on preventing and treating infections. But let us not see child hunger and malnutrition as unavoidable byproducts of our approach. We can do our part to ensure children have the nutrition they need to learn and grow, even as they are relatively protected from the infectious complications of the current pandemic.
Dr. Steven A. Abrams is a neonatologist and professor of pediatrics in Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.
Dr. Michael K. Hole is an assistant professor of pediatrics, population health and public policy at Dell Medical School and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in Austin American Statesman.