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COVID-19 increases food insecurity

COVID-19 increases food insecurity

OPINION  Food insecurity was a major issue in the United States before the pandemic and it’s going to continue to be a major issue after the pandemic ends. In my work with Feeding America we’re projecting that about 50 million people experienced food insecurity in 2020 in the United States. For context, that number was about 35 million in 2019.

So COVID-19 and the resulting economic contraction accounts for an almost 43 percent increase in food insecurity in the United States. And that increase has disproportionately fallen on the most vulnerable – those who are working in relatively smaller-wage hourly jobs that require them to be present in person at work to earn a paycheck.

We’re not seeing as much of an effect for people with white-collar jobs who can work remotely. But when lesser-paid workers are unable to work they become food-insecure because they’re already an economic shock or two away from food insecurity.

That’s the bad news. The good news is the unemployment rate didn’t increase as much as some economists anticipated after the initial spike in joblessness in the spring. And that was mostly due to the various stimulus packages, which helped quite a bit to lessen some of those problems.

But there’s no sugarcoating the fact that COVID-19 caused a dramatic spike in food insecurity. The federal government should continue the same strategies it employed before the pandemic struck, but supersize them. In other words make it easier for people to access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, what most people commonly call food stamps. SNAP is an amazing resource and an efficient program that helps millions of Americans each year, especially during times of need. And we are in a time of need due to COVID-19.

So the federal government should look to expand the program, both in eligibility and in benefits. A lot of states have implemented ways to make it easier for people in need to register for the program, and some interesting policy changes have been made in terms of temporarily expanding spending benefits.

That’s the nice thing about having a program like SNAP. It’s explicitly designed to be a safety valve during difficult times. Personally I would make it so we can increase benefits a little more quickly when people’s incomes decrease. And that should be the case whether incomes decrease because of a pandemic or some other economic shock. We should be able to move benefits to people faster.

One other bit of good news is that food prices have stayed relatively stable. There were real concerns at the beginning of the pandemic that the food supply chain would break. That didn’t happen. So if we just give people the assistance they need, those benefits will stretch a lot more than if food prices were experiencing inflationary pressure.

Public-health experts are warning that the most challenging three months of the pandemic are ahead of us. Historically the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas has always been a busy time for food pantries. It’s absolutely more so this year with increased demand for food.

The good news is donations to our food-bank network in the United States have been amazing. Americans have given more. So while there’s increased demand there’s also increased supply, which is a good thing.

What we see in “Map the Meal Gap” data is there are a large number of counties across the United States that really have had no change in unemployment, so food-insecurity levels there have basically stayed the same.

But areas that rely on tourism such as Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Orlando have been hit quite hard. Even Chicago, which has a huge restaurant scene that employs numerous hourly employees, has experienced difficulty. So there’s a lot of variation across the country. We should really start thinking about putting additional resources into those areas. A good place to start would be a targeted increase in SNAP benefits.

Children from reduced-income backgrounds get much of their food through schools. Now that schools are increasingly online, consider how the pandemic has affected school-age children’s food insecurity. There’s no doubt school-age children who once received one or two meals each day from school have been missing out on those meals or have only been sporadically receiving those meals.

One of the policy responses that was successful was the pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, where children who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches would automatically receive money equal to the daily-meal costs of what they would have received at school. The benefit was run through SNAP. Food banks around the country are cognizant of that meal gap, and they have mobilized to distribute baskets of food to school-aged children. That has been another successful response.

Another idea that I’m evaluating right now with colleagues from Baylor University is the effectiveness of a program called Emergency Meals-to-You, which are baskets of food delivered to people’s doors, targeted to children in vulnerable rural areas. That’s another potential pathway for addressing the problem, and also solving the problem of hunger when schools are out of session for breaks and during the summer.

Craig Gundersen is a Distinguished Professor in the University of Illinois-College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Visit aces.illinois.edu for more information.

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