Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, food insecurity (lack of reliable access to nutritious food) was a significant problem, affecting 11% of the country, with higher rates among low-income minorities and racial and ethnic minorities. Closing businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19 has led to historically high unemployment levels, the most recent of which was 11% in June. This means that more than 40 million people have lost their jobs. Like food insecurity, allegations of unemployment also disproportionately affect black and Hispanic populations. However, it is possible to consider different paths, and even a path that leads to the food security of many more adults and children across the United States.
How are people doing now?
Food insecurity is a major public health problem linked to common, costly and preventable chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and poor mental health. The result is an estimated $ 78 billion in additional health care costs per year.
To get a sense of the situation of American households during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau and other government agencies launched a weekly household pulse survey in late April 2020. The survey includes questions about the food insufficiency, a narrower definition of food insecurity. It collects data on food consumption and affordability, but not on lack of resources, inability to acquire enough nutritious food, anxiety about being able to get food or attempts to stretch available food . Census questions likely underestimate food insecurity and are difficult to compare directly to pre-pandemic levels. Yet the results are instructive.
Using recent census data from the eighth week (June 18-23), we find very large disparities in food insufficiency by race and ethnicity. While around 7% of white households sometimes or often say they do not have enough to eat, this rate is almost triple (around 19%) among black households and double (around 14%) among Hispanic households. Affordability was the most common reason for not having enough food. This is not surprising, given that food prices have increased during this pandemic. Other estimates suggest that next year, one in four children will experience food insecurity.
What can we do to move towards food security?
We have proven policy approaches that significantly address the problem of food insecurity. The main one is to take advantage of the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP is by far the largest federal nutrition assistance program. Before COVID-19, SNAP helped 38 million people – nearly half of them children – to afford food each month. Enrollment in SNAP increased significantly during COVID-19 due to massive unemployment. During a crisis, SNAP is one of the easiest and fastest ways to get money into the hands of low-income Americans. These benefits can be easily adjusted as recipients receive them on a debit card.
Thanks to recent stimulus laws in response to COVID-19, Congress has allocated $ 15.8 billion to increase SNAP registrations and made some key changes to SNAP, which are surely contributing to food insecurity. Temporarily, the extended benefits for people receiving SNAP provide
- two months of emergency benefits to a maximum (it varies – it’s $ 646 for a family of four)
- a pandemic EBT of around $ 114 per child per month
- temporary suspension of work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents
- State exemptions, to allow flexibility in re-registration.
Is the SNAP service adequate?
In particular, none of these changes increases the overall size of the monthly SNAP service. The benefit is widely recognized as insufficient because it unrealistically assumes that households have certain types of ingredients, time, equipment and knowledge to prepare food from scratch. The average SNAP household receives a monthly benefit of approximately $ 1.40 per person per meal, which does not cover the cost of a meal in 99% of American counties.
The fourth stimulus bill, the HEROES law, was passed in the House in May. He has a provision to increase the monthly SNAP benefits by 15% ($ 100 per month for a family of four) for two months. If this bill is passed by the Senate, it could provide an essential and indispensable boost to low-income households, perhaps helping to alleviate long-standing inequalities in food insecurity. It would also help stabilize the economy, as increased SNAP spending creates a multiplier effect by generating income for the production, distribution, marketing and sales of food products.
If not, how could Congress act with food security in mind?
The House HEROES Bill includes additional promising policy options to address food insecurity. For example:
- extend the benefits of pandemic EBT
- continued suspension of SNAP work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents; these requirements reduce the participation of groups at higher risk of food insecurity
- increased school meal reimbursements for schools struggling to feed children while struggling with the costs of measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The bill awaits a vote in the Senate and final approval by the President. Senators return from the two-week break from July 4 to July 20 and will have three weeks to act before the traditional August break. Interested readers can contact their senators and ask them to act.
Food insecurity is entirely avoidable. We have proven political tools to solve this problem. We just need the political will to deploy them and the recognition that food insecurity is not an individual problem, but a reflection of systemic inequality.
Our sincere thanks to