Christine has been raising her grandson, who’s now 5, for the last three years, since Child Protective Services (CPS) removed him from his mother’s care for child neglect. She lets out an exhausted sigh as she relays the struggles of feeding her grandson. “What would really be helpful to us is food stamps, but they [the federal government] shrug us off because we don’t have custody. That’s not fair. In order to provide proper nourishment and food, sometimes you feel like you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul in order to have a food budget.”
Christine’s situation is not uncommon; grandfamilies are a growing segment of the population. In the United States, more than 2.7 million grandparents report that they’re primarily responsible for their grandchildren under 18. The problem is many are struggling with food insecurity because of federal rules and regulations.
Grandfamilies Facing Food Insecurity
From August 2018 to January 2019, I interviewed 30 grandparents (ages 54 and older) raising grandchildren in North Carolina about their experiences feeding their families. Over the past year, all the families had experienced food insecurity — the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods.
“I don’t worry about myself. It’s trying to keep the meals right for the kids.”
Older adults experience substantially higher rates of food insecurity if a grandchild is in the household. Roughly one-fifth of skipped-generation households are poor and living below the federal poverty level.
Through my interviews, I learned that some grandfamilies experience food insecurity in part because they are left out of the government’s food assistance programs, particularly SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps). That’s because federal rules require grandparents have custody of the grandkids to qualify. Not all grandparents are able to get custody.
Many families I talked to pursued legal custody of their grandchildren, but issues of accessibility and affordability created barriers.
For example, Yvonne, 54, said: “I can’t afford to pay $1,500 to have it done. That’s how much it costs for a lawyer to assist me.”
The average monthly household income for the grandfamilies in my study was $1,454. Paying approximately a month’s wages for legal assistance simply was not a realistic option for many.
Making Sacrifices to Buy Food for Grandkids
In my study, grandparents discussed their difficulty being able to afford nutritionally adequate foods. Often, they’ve had to make sacrifices to purchase food.
For example, Mildred, a 59-year-old grandmother caring for her two grandchildren, said: “I don’t worry about myself. It’s trying to keep the meals right for the kids. Trying to make sure that they get the right amount of fruits, the right amount of vegetables. It’s stressful… And if it wasn’t so expensive [fruits and vegetables], we would have a lot more [food], and I wouldn’t have to skip my medicine.”
If these grandfamilies could access SNAP benefits, that would assuage some of the stress they endure while trying to feed their grandchildren.
Despite not having legal custody, the grandparents maintain that their grandfamilies are, in fact, family.
As the last viable resource before children enter the child welfare system, grandparents save the government and taxpayers more than $4 billion annually. Yet, foster parents receive more assistance.
Said Christine: “They seem to give foster care parents more money than they do for us taking care of our grandkids, you know? It’s just a sad situation that grandkids end up becoming ours again and us raising kids because their parents aren’t capable of doing so. But in the meantime, you know, you don’t get any assistance.”
Many of the families I spoke to are losing hope.
Sylvia, a 58-year-old grandmother caring for her two grandchildren (ages 11 and 5), said: “Being able to get food stamps would help a lot. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen soon…so it’s a struggle.”
In 2018, Congress passed the bipartisan Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act. This law will create a Federal Advisory Council to identify, promote, and disseminate useful resources and information to support grandfamilies.
Recognizing Challenges Caregiving Grandparents Face
Access to government services, including monetary support and food assistance, represents a positive first step for grandfamilies in need. But policymakers and service providers must also recognize the unique challenges facing aging caregivers. In addition to monetary support, many grandparents I spoke to require additional assistance due to lack of transportation, limited mobility and other issues associated with aging.
For example, preparing meals safely in their homes and going grocery shopping presented everyday obstacles for grandparents trying to feed their families.
We must recognize the variability of grandparent caregivers, and reject one-size-fits-all solutions to ensure that we support all grandfamilies.
(Next Avenue invites opinion pieces that reflect a range of perspectives. Doing so helps our readers learn about views from a multitude of experts.)
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