Food has always been a medium for connection. And, if you’re lucky, food may serve as a precious remaining thread to life before COVID-19. Though restaurants have closed and some grocery favorites are hard to find, takeout or homecooked meals can be a source of comfort and consistency in these uncertain times.
But for many, getting food on the table has become a sudden and urgent challenge with estimates suggesting the need for food has increased by eight-fold in some areas. As the current shutdown now leaves many financially strained, there is a rapidly growing struggle among Americans to afford adequate and nutritious food. In response, both public and private players have stepped up to offer support, but is it enough?
For the purposes of this article, we look at responses to COVID-related food insecurity in the United States. This is not intended to discount the severe food-related implications of the virus globally. It should also be noted that the topic is evolving rapidly. This article reflects the environment as of April 24, 2020.
The State of Aid
In March, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was signed into law to provide relief to many industries, businesses and families impacted by the shutdown. The stimulus package supports the food and agriculture industry in several ways, but directly helps eligible Americans obtain food via flexibilities to nutrition assistance programs, including:
- Easing of requirements to the Child and Adult Care Food Program (funding for nutritious meals and snacks to children, older adults and chronically impaired persons with disabilities at daycare institutions) and school nutrition programs.
- Allowing states to issue a pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) to provide support during school closures for families of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
- Relaxing of administrative requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
- Providing states the right to issue emergency supplemental SNAP benefits.
Given these nutrition assistance programs are supplemental in design, support from other players becomes exceedingly necessary during economic downturns. However, a new analysis from Feeding America suggests even food banks are strapped for resources and will require an extra $1.4 billion in resources over the next six months to meet surging demands. In response, some groups have stepped up to offer food or other forms of aid:
- Feeding America, Meals on Wheels, United Way and others have launched a response fund to acquire and distribute food.
- Small initiatives, such as Invisible Hands NYC and Get Shift Done for North Texas, have popped up to provide immediate support to their local communities.
- Some restaurants have pivoted to offer discounted or free meals.
- A number of celebrities, athletes and chefs have made big donations to food distribution networks.
The Need for Systemic Solutions
Though the efforts above offer invaluable relief, more comprehensive solutions must be devised to fix the bottleneck in the food supply, reallocate the surplus of food to prevent unnecessary waste and offer financial assistance to those in need.
As a first step, the USDA announced the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) on April 17, a $19 billion relief program aimed at providing a financial safety net across the U.S. food supply chain. In addition to providing direct support ($16 billion) to farmers and ranchers, the funding will be used to purchase and distribute $3 billion of fresh produce, dairy and meat to food banks, community and faith-based organizations serving Americans in need. On April 22, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced an increase to monthly SNAP benefits by 40 percent or $2 billion per month. Details on these efforts are still surfacing, but it is likely gaps will remain.
How You Can Help
While sweeping solutions are needed, small steps can help go a long way in helping people and families facing food insecurity.
- Avoid hoarding food, and consider giving to a local food pantry in your community using this national database.
- Donate money to Feeding America’s Coronavirus Response Fund, Meals on Wheels COVID-19 Response Fund or another organization fighting hunger.
- Give in-kind to Blessings in a Backpack, an organization that feeds school children.
- Learn more about volunteering with Meals on Wheels.
These extraordinary circumstances have resulted in extraordinary examples of generosity and human connection. And that’s the silver lining that will keep us moving forward.