At Greater Risk: Food Insecurity During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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We have all seen the startling images: lines stretching for miles at food banks and pantries across the nation as more than 26 million people suddenly find themselves out of work.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, food insecurity was a serious issue for many Americans: nearly 12 percent of American households – 18 percent among households with children – suffered from inconsistent access to adequate food. Food insecurity does not just mean going hungry; it is associated with a number of serious health outcomes, including increased risk of birth defects, cognitive problems, obesity, higher rates of anxiety and aggression in children, diabetes and hypertension in adults, oral health problems and increased likelihood of having limitations in activities of daily living for older adults.

A Problem, Made Worse

The pandemic has only exacerbated food insecurity, especially among several vulnerable populations:

Older Adults

Older adults are among those with the greatest risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19. Indeed, 8 out of 10 deaths in this country have been in adults 65 years old and older. Because of this risk, federal and state governments have recommended that they stock up on food and supplies and socially distance themselves from others. Although these recommendations are necessary to curb the spread of the virus, they can be particularly difficult for those who are already struggling with food insecurity. Older adults on fixed incomes find it especially difficult to purchase extra food. Further, because of the restrictions on gatherings, many older adults can no longer get meals at locations such as senior centers or faith-based settings. Additionally, well-established programs like Meals on Wheels are struggling to keep up with the increased demand due to a shortage of volunteers and reduced access to food supplies.

People of Color

Black, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaskan Native households already have a rate of food insecurity approximately twice that of their white counterparts. The pandemic has only placed these communities at greater risk. The financial crisis has had an outsized impact on workers of color, who are more likely to be paid less, be under- or uninsured, be more likely to be laid off and be less likely to be able to afford time off during the pandemic. 

Children

The closure of schools across the United States has reduced access to nutritionally appropriate food for the 22 million children across the country who rely on free and reduced-price meals every day. In addition, as millions of families are affected by increased economic stress, reduced work hours, layoffs, furloughs and business closures, many more children are at greater risk of becoming food insecure.

Fighting Food Insecurity During COVID-19

The federal government has taken some initial steps to improve Americans’ access to food during this pandemic. For example, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided an additional $500 million to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which serves low-income pregnant women and mothers with young children. It also provided $400 million through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to assist local food banks in meeting increased demand. The CARES Act also provided $24.6 billion for domestic food programs, including $15.8 billion in enhanced funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs.

Programs for older adults, such as Meals on Wheels and senior centers and food banks, have pivoted to offering “grab and go” meals and boxes of shelf-stable food. Schools have been at the forefront of fighting child hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools may be able to continue serving food through The Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option (both a part of the National School Lunch Program). Schools can also use the School Breakfast Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program At-Risk Afterschool Meal Program to offer meals to students. Schools have set up “grab and go” sites and offered meal delivery services along school bus routes to get meals to children who do not have transportation. Some schools have partnered with public transportation services to ensure that students can get a free ride on public buses to pick up meals.

Future Action

There are a variety of other policy solutions advocates can push states and the federal government to pursue to fight food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, including:

  • Boost SNAP maximum benefits by 15 percent, increase the minimum SNAP benefit from $16 to $30 and suspend all SNAP administrative rules that would terminate or weaken benefits.
  • Modernize WIC by offering online and mobile applications and the option to submit necessary documentation to local agencies using technology platforms. This could include re-designing websites and apps to make them more accessible and easy to navigate, as well as offering them in multiple languages.
  • Provide monetary support for the expansion of job opportunities at food banks and meal delivery services in order to meet increased demand.

In addition to promoting these policy changes, advocates should continue to provide individuals and families in their communities with information about food resources (e.g., food pick-up sites, food delivery programs) and eligibility requirements for programs such as SNAP or WIC. In a country so rich in agricultural resources and productivity, the magnitude of food insecurity and hunger in the United States has long amounted to a national disgrace. In addition to doing all we can to help ensure everyone gets ample access to nutritious food during this period of crisis, we must continue to look over the horizon and work for systemic change to put an end to these historic inequities.