This article was originally published in The Appeal on September 22, 2020, and was written by Ona Balkus, Food Policy Director at the DC Office of Planning and former FLPC Clinical Fellow.
Food insecurity is not an acute emergency, but rather a chronic condition for low-income Americans that existed long before the current public health emergency.
At an event in North Carolina last month highlighting a new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food program, President Donald Trump displayed a flawed, but pervasive, line of thinking that has guided the federal government response to food insecurity during the public health emergency.
The president stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has many left farmers with “no place to send their crops or livestock,” even as “families across the country were in need of groceries.” He continued, “They wanted to eat well. And next year, they’re going to be eating better than ever before because we’re going to have a tremendous year.” This may sound good in theory, but the millions of families who are facing food insecurity will need more than just groceries to get through the next few months.
Food insecurity is not an acute emergency, but rather a chronic condition for low-income Americans that existed long before the current public health emergency. The USDA defines food insecurity as the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Without meaningful, structural change, this problem will long outlast the COVID-19 pandemic.
At its root, food insecurity is a symptom of poverty and the result of structural racism and a long history of racist policies, such as redlining, that have created a racial wealth gap and disinvestment in majority Black, Latinx, and Indigenous (BIPOC) communities. These communities are much more likely to live in food deserts, a USDA term used to describe predominantly low-income census tracts with limited access to healthy, affordable food options. Before COVID-19, Black households were twice as likely and Latinx households were 1.5 times as likely to be food insecure as white households. Food insecurity is connected to lower life expectancy and higher rates of diet-related chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
COVID-19 has nearly doubled the rate of food insecurity in the United States, from 11.1 percent to approximately 21.9 percent among adults. And this increase has once again weighed most heavily on communities of color, with food insecurity increasing by twice as much in Black and Latinx households as in white households. COVID-19 has also presented new challenges for access to food. The stay-at-home orders this spring, for example, underscored how decades of racist planning policies have left many low-income communities of color cut off from grocery stores that provide affordable, accessible food options.
The Trump administration could have responded by acknowledging food insecurity as a chronic, long-term problem made worse by the pandemic. By increasing benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other forms of direct cash assistance, they could have provided low-income households with the dignity of choice, while supporting the local businesses where these benefits would be spent.
Instead, the USDA rolled out the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which pays farmers and food distribution companies to build boxes of food and distribute them to non-profit organizations, who then distribute these boxes to individuals in need. This new program has high administrative costs, making it more expensive than direct cash assistance. Farmers to Families has also been criticized for its questionable contracting choices, delays, and the long lines it has created in communities around the country, often in the summer heat. The program is re-upped every three months, creating uncertainty for grantees and participants.
The administration has followed a “cross our fingers and hope it’s over soon” approach with other federal nutrition programs as well. The USDA issued waivers to provide flexibility for programs like SNAP, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program, but only for only a few months at a time. In some cases, they’ve extended waivers so last-minute that state governments and school districts have had to scramble to roll back messaging about changes to the programs. The waiver to provide free school meals to all children, for example, wasn’t extended until the first day of school for many school districts. Although the waivers themselves were essential, this piecemeal approach lacks strategic foresight, has led to countless hours of lost productivity for program administrators, and has caused confusion and decreased participation in programs by the people who need them most.
Treating hunger as an acute emergency, rather than a chronic condition, is hardly unique, but with attention shifted to food insecurity amid the pandemic, we finally have an opportunity to reimagine our response.
A wide body of research shows increasing SNAP and other cash benefits helps low-income Americans escape the cycle of poverty. State and local governments should deploy coordinated, wide-reaching enrollment campaigns to ensure all eligible residents benefit from these programs. We should invest in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous owned food retail stores that serve their communities and employ local residents as a way to build wealth and promote career advancement. Food sector workers, many of whom have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response, should get a living wage, paid sick leave, health benefits, and overtime.
Governments at every level should use their purchasing power to contract with BIPOC-owned small businesses and businesses that value their workers. With COVID-19 highlighting the tight link between diet and health and the importance of “food as medicine”, we should invest in programs that empower healthcare providers to conduct food insecurity screenings at routine visits, and to connect those who screen positive to nutritious food. Lastly, we should be supporting BIPOC farmers with land ownership opportunities in order to begin addressing America’s long history of denying and stealing land from these communities.
Recognizing food insecurity as a symptom of larger systemic problems in our food system is the first step to addressing its root causes. COVID-19 has simply thrown this chronic issue into more stark relief. Governments at all levels cannot afford to miss this opportunity to make bold, system-wide reform.