Even before the current pandemic, food insecurity plagued the lives of millions here in the United States. In 2018, 11.1 percent (14.3 million) of U.S. households, or 37.2 million people, lacked consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food insecurity hits some people and communities harder than others: impoverished households and communities of color are at greater risk of hunger and malnutrition due to food access issues mediated by income, food environments and where they live, and employment status. And these statistics are from before the pandemic, when, by many standards, the nation’s economy was doing well. Today, breadlines stretch for miles as lost income and unemployment due to COVID-19 threaten to leave millions more hungry.
Inconsistent access to food takes a dire toll on mental and physical health. The uncertainty of one’s next meal, poor sleep, and other biobehavioral effects of malnutrition contribute to the chronic psychological burden of poverty. It exacerbates existing diseases, and is a predictor of malnutrition, obesity, and other diet-related diseases. Furthermore, these morbidities contribute to greater risk of chronic and infectious disease, including COVID-19, and create costly burdens on both health care consumers and systems. They also contribute to forgone income and premature death.
While inadequate incomes and resources contribute to food insecurity, its health and educational consequences place on marginalized people additional financial strains and greater barriers to finding employment, tackling childhood poverty, and promoting self-sufficiency and intergenerational mobility. Poverty is inextricably tied to food insecurity and malnutrition: every day, poor families and individuals are forced to make dangerous trade-offs between food, health care, education, housing, and other essentials—all needed to promote one’s physical, social, and financial well-being, but too often arriving at the cost of one, some, or all of the others,
Every day, poor families and individuals are forced to make dangerous trade-offs between food, health care, education, housing, and other essentials.”
The current COVID-19 pandemic stands to exacerbate these inequities. While experts have recommended that Americans stock up on two weeks’ worth of food and avoid frequent trips to the grocery store, uptake of such advice doesn’t come easy to our communities already affected by, and most vulnerable to, food insecurity. The economic fallout, social distancing measures and shelter-in-place orders, and health concerns challenge many Americans’ ability to afford and obtain adequate, nutritious food. At a critical time to stay healthy and protect one’s immune system to ward off COVID-19, food is an essential that must be ensured, but is far from guaranteed.
In this commentary, we will illuminate the shape and extent of the food security emergency, describe some of the recent efforts to respond to it, and touch on several measures that should be taken up to bolster that response and get people the relief they need and deserve.
The Communities Most Vulnerable to Food Insecurity Today
People of Color and Low-Income Individuals
Food insecurity is often a proxy for economic insecurity and racial inequality. Rates of food insecurity are higher for households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line, with women and men living alone, and with children, especially households headed by a single parent. Rates are also higher in Black, Hispanic, and Native households. These groups can be especially vulnerable to poor nutrition and diet-related diseases due to intersecting risk factors associated with inadequate financial resources for individuals and their communities.
In addition to income, the food environment plays an important role in people’s access to food. And hunger is not just about getting enough calories to relieve an empty stomach; the nutritional quality of the food matters too. Many communities—especially those with high populations of low-income people and people of color—face substantial challenges in accessing healthy and nutritious foods, including poverty, lack of access to transportation, lack of healthy food retail, and greater access to unhealthy food sources like convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, and alcohol outlets. These circumstances are largely due to residential segregation and chronic underinvestment in communities of color, which have contributed to disproportionate rates of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension—comorbidities that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Although racial data on testing, hospitalizations, and deaths due to COVID-19 are still incomplete, early warnings and reports have shown that low-income, Black, Hispanic, and Native communities have been hit the hardest. Many in these groups are frontline and essential workers who are put at risk when they use public transportation or go to work. Many also live in multigenerational homes, where a working-age adult exposed to the virus could pass it on to seniors and others in their household. Furthermore, these communities are not only more likely to be exposed to the disease, but are more vulnerable to it due to longstanding environmental inequities, where exposure to toxic and obesity-promoting elements in their daily environments cause higher rates of asthma and diet-related chronic diseases. They have less access to adequate health care and testing, limited safety net protections, and many of them are among the thousands of service workers who have already lost incomes and jobs due to COVID-19.
Geography and immigration status also play a role. Prevalence of food insecurity is especially high in Southern states, where there are large populations of Black and low-income residents, where many states have yet to expand Medicaid, and where many local leaders have delayed social distancing measures and may be prematurely lifting them. Despite the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ insistence that special considerations for COVID-19 will be made with respect to the recent public charge rule, immigrants still fear seeking public assistance. Food insecurity will hit these groups hardest and compound the health and economic consequences of this crisis.
In 2018, 2.7 million households with children experienced food insecurity. Household food insecurity has many negative impacts on children, including compromised physical and mental health, underperformance in school, and subsequent and long-term health disparities and poverty. Some policies have been able to offer consistent relief to these families. Perhaps chief among them has been the federal school-based nutrition programs, which enhance food security among families with children, especially in households with economic vulnerability and time constraints due to work; they help improve children’s dietary intake, obesity rates, overall health, and academic outcomes. In 2018, the National School Lunch Program served free or reduced-price lunch to 29.7 million children daily. In the same year, 14.69 million students participated in the School Breakfast Program.
That source of relief has now been severely disrupted at the least, and at worst put on indefinite hiatus, for most children in the country. School closures due to the pandemic highlight schools’ essential role in childhood development lies not only in learning but also in the provision of a host of social services, such as meals. As parents struggle to find child care, transition their children to online learning, and pay bills due to lost jobs or incomes, putting food on the table is another challenge that threatens children’s health, strains students’ disrupted education, and stands to worsen existing educational inequities. While school districts have kept open select schools to continue meal service, issues of access to transportation and child care cause some students to fall through the cracks.
Millions of elderly Americans experience food insecurity every year. Although rates of food insecurity among seniors are lower than the national average, this population faces additional and substantial access issues because of their health and age. And while nursing homes have been a focal point for concern amidst this crisis, many more elderly individuals live in the broader community and are vulnerable to the health impacts and economic disruptions of COVID-19, and in many cases have less support available to them, compared with those who live in residential or long-term care facilities.
Meals on Wheels, a program that delivers 200 million meals to 2.4 million hungry and isolated elderly each year, is struggling to keep up with growing need
Of the 40.4 million unpaid caregivers and 3.2 million home health and personal care aides at work in the United States, many are electing to stay home in order to protect themselves, their clients, or take care of children who have now been sent home from school. These formal and informal caretakers help some of the 12 million older adults who live alone, as well as many more with health conditions that make grocery shopping difficult on a normal day—and dangerous during a pandemic. Meals on Wheels, a program that delivers 200 million meals to 2.4 million hungry and isolated elderly each year, is struggling to keep up with growing need as volunteers stay home due to social distancing guidelines and shelter-in-place orders. Additionally, as congregate meal sites—group settings where healthy meals are provided—close, older adults are met with dwindling options with which to ward off hunger.
Increased Demand for America’s Food Pantries and Food Banks
Record rates of unemployment and lost wages have sent many Americans to food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens. Many are going for the first time: at one Texas food bank, 70 percent of visitors had never been there previously. In a typical year, food banks serve over 46.5 million people. Now, they are stretched to the breaking point: overwhelmed emergency food sources struggle to keep up with demand as supplies of donations and volunteers dwindle due to closed restaurants, hotels, and casinos, and with many volunteers sheltering at home. And amidst food shortages in grocery stores, food banks, and people’s cabinets, farmers are destroying food due to disruptions in the supply chain and challenges in redistributing the food to charitable organizations. The paradox of want amid plenty highlights the failures of a capitalist food system—where some surplus has been donated but is inevitably unprofitable to producers, and much is destroyed in order to protect their livelihoods—and leaders’ tepid efforts to feed the hungry and support farmers have only made matters worse.
As we’ve seen in the health impact and in issues of education, unemployment, and paid leave, the impact of COVID-19 on food access falls along race and class lines and stands to compound current and longstanding inequities. Furthermore, these developments are accelerating as many newly unemployed lose their employee-sponsored health plans, joining the 28 million who were uninsured before the crisis even began. Many—especially adult women, Black people, and Hispanic people—are already reporting that the situation has had a negative impact on their mental health. Food insecurity simultaneously exacerbates these vulnerabilities, and is exacerbated further still by the pandemic’s health and economic fallout. As the specter of hunger and malnutrition looms over ever greater numbers of people, individuals’ personal health, resilience, and finances are further stressed. The health and economic consequences of food insecurity will also add to the pandemic’s costly bill to our health care system for various reasons, the high number of those uninsured and underinsured being one of them.
Relief Efforts to Date to Address Hunger
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), also known as the “phase 2” legislative relief package and signed into law on March 18, included important expansions in funding and authority measures to support various nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), food programs for schools, food programs targeting vulnerable communities, and food charities. Notable provisions include:
- authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to offer states flexibility in adapting and supplementing SNAP and easing the administrative burdens of the application process;
- additional food purchasing dollars to SNAP recipients who don’t already receive the maximum benefit and temporarily waives certain requirements, including work requirements and the three-month limit for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD);
- $100 million to the secretary of agriculture to provide nutrition assistance grants to the U.S. territories;
- an additional $500 million to the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC;
- an additional $400 million for the Emergency Food Assistance Program for food banks, soup kitchens, and food pantries;
- $160 million for home-delivery nutrition programs, such as Meals on Wheels;
- $10 million for nutrition programs that support Native Americans;
- allows states more flexibility on how they enable the elderly to access meals; and
- allows states and school districts more flexibility in how school meals are distributed during pandemic-related school closures.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, the “phase 3” relief package signed into law on March 27, includes the following supports for food aid programs:
- $15.8 billion in supplemental funding for nutrition programs, of which $300 million has been allocated to SNAP;
- $8.8 billion in additional funding for child nutrition programs, including support for schools;
- $450 million for Emergency Food Assistance Programs for food banks, soup kitchens, and food pantries; and
- $100 million to support food aid for Native communities.
Several states have moved quickly to implement flexibility measures that reduce burdensome sign-up processes and allow for the expansion of some SNAP benefits to individuals and families in need. However, it is clear that these efforts, while an excellent start, are not sufficient; and that sufficiency is unlikely to be arrived at in one fell swoop of policymaking. What, then, should be the next steps taken to increase food security, especially for those most vulnerable to it?
Recommended Next Steps
SNAP, being our first line of defense against hunger and an important economic stabilizer, is worthy of prioritizing in the nation’s next relief package. An effective recessionary safety net, SNAP plays a critical role in alleviating food insecurity, improving people’s health and well-being, and promoting positive long-term health, economic, and educational outcomes for children. Increases in SNAP benefits during the 2008 recession helped stimulate the economy. During the height of the last recession, SNAP benefits generated about $85 billion in local economic activity. Given that the pandemic hits hardest low-wage, low-income, and service workers, SNAP is also a good choice for prioritization because it responds quickly and effectively to support these groups who find themselves out of work, with reduced incomes, and in lack of access to adequate nutrition. Thus it is critical that relief efforts address both increased demand for SNAP and the need to boost the benefits that the program provides.
Federal policymakers should strengthen and expand SNAP benefits by taking the following steps:
- Increase the maximum SNAP benefit by 15 percent, and the minimum benefit from $16 to $30 per person per month, which adds up to a total price tag of about $5 billion for the rest of fiscal year 2020.
- Suspend finalizing or implementing three administrative rules currently being pursued that would contract SNAP eligibility and weaken benefits. Of particular importance are the work requirements and three-month limit for ABAWDs. The current suspension of this time limit only lasts until the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lifts the public health emergency, but the economic downturn is expected to last much longer.
- Connect the sign-up process for SNAP benefits to that of other social support programs for those who are experiencing economic hardship through lost wages, unemployment, or other circumstances due to COVID-19.
Policymakers should also appropriate additional emergency relief funds to support the nation’s food banks, food pantries, and food charities, which are desperately needed to meet the increased demand for food for individuals and families suffering from the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization, projects an estimated $1.4 billion shortfall due to this public health crisis. This presents a 30 percent increase over baseline operating costs for six months for 200 food banks. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act were important first steps, but the vast increases in demand have proven that much more is needed to adequately support the burgeoning hunger crisis in America.
A Clarion Call
COVID-19 response efforts to date have made good initial steps at helping to address hunger at this critical time. However, they do not go far enough in offering sustainable solutions for the longer term. With record unemployment and ill health due to COVID-19 ravaging the well-being of individuals and families, it is critical that more be done to support the nutritional needs of the many people struggling at this time. Many of these efforts are temporary measures, lasting until the public health emergency is lifted, yet the devastating economic fallout will likely last much longer beyond it. The next phase in the COVID-19 response effort presents an important opportunity to provide longer-term relief and expand food and nutrition support in real, tangible ways. Miles-long lines at the nation’s food banks and increased demand for SNAP and other food aid programs should be a clarion call to policymakers.
header photo: City of Opa-locka employees and volunteers prepare bags of food, provided by the food bank Feeding South Florida, to be given out to the needy at a drive-thru distribution site in Opa-locka, Florida. Source: Joe Raedle/Getty Images