Millions go hungry during COVID-19

Consumer Action’s webinar on how the coronavirus has impacted the crisis.
Published: Thursday, April 01, 2021

In 2019, 50 million U.S. adults and 12 million children in the U.S. were "food insecure," revealed Dr. Katherine Alaimo, associate professor of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University. (This number, which excluded homeless people and those who couldn’t be reached via phone for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual questionnaire, was likely an underestimate.) In defining food insecurity for Consumer Action’s webinar on how the coronavirus has impacted the crisis in the U.S., Dr. Alaimo first outlined its opposite: food security, which is the “reliable access to the food needed to live a healthy, active lifestyle.”

Food insecurity occurs when households must cut back on the quality and/or quantity of food for adult members—and, in more dire circumstances, for children. By many estimates, instances of this dire situation had tripled to 38% of the U.S. population by April 2020 (from 12% during the 2019 count) due to the high unemployment rate after the start of the pandemic, Alaimo explained.

Alaimo was one of three speakers invited to present at the free webinar, produced as part of Consumer Action’s larger COVID-19 Educational Project (which consumers can explore here). Farmer and activist Karen Washington also spoke on the impact of food insecurity on communities and how we can fight back, while Dr. Lisa Jahns, national program leader of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program, spoke on the types of federal food- and nutrition-related grants available to the community-based organizations helping to fight hunger and poverty.

Alaimo noted that millions more people annually experience “hidden food stress,” the concern that food will run out before being able to afford more, and anxiety over the quantity or quality of food (e.g., “Are those apples too rotten to eat, or can we make them stretch longer?”).

The webinar helped answer the widespread question of how those of us who are more secure can help balance inequities. Speakers emphasized that individual charity isn’t necessarily what needs to improve in order to counter food insecurities. Instead, society must tackle the longstanding systemic problems, such as racism, that fuel a history of power imbalances around our food system. One example? The Washington Post recently revealed how George Floyd’s great-great-grandfather had once acquired 500 acres of farmland on which to grow food. As was common for his era, it was seized from him by “white farmers using legally questionable maneuvers that were common in the postwar South.” There has been a dramatic reduction in Black farmers over the last century: In 1920, they represented 17% of all farmers, and in 2019, less than 2%, due to what Alaimo termed “clear discrimination” and land theft by individuals, but also by the Department of Agriculture.

“If I don't leave you with anything else in this presentation, I hope I can leave you with this one fact,” Alaimo said. “Before the pandemic, 78% of food insecure households with children were working; only 7% of food insecure families with children were not working and not disabled. Why do we see this? The major issues are low wages and under-employment. In essence, the main cause of food insecurity is not unemployment, but poverty.” Poverty—caused by unequal pay and workers’ rights; a system that leaves the sick and disabled without sufficient safety nets; land loss due to rampant gentrification; a shamefully low minimum wage (which Congress just refused to raise); monopolies on seeds, farms and farm subsidies; and food “deserts” in under-invested urban or rural areas.

The solution is to fight for more just social and economic environments, as activist and proponent of community gardens and urban farms Karen Washington pointed out, and listen to what the people in the communities you’re serving want. Since the 1980s, this NYC-based activist has marched on City Hall and partnered with housing and labor organizations to fight for green space—and power for downtrodden communities.

“The struggle for good food and clean water brings to the surface the social/economic disparities we often see in communities of color and [among] poor folks, and when we don’t talk about and act on these disparities, it just reinforces a food system that is controlled mainly by a handful of people with power. Food alone has no power, but has become a commodity and a tool used to have power over others,” Washington said.

A healthy food system is not just about growing food, but about making sure all parties along the food chain are treated fairly and humanely, Washington added, stating that now, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis, it’s critical to support farm workers, grocery workers and restaurant workers—as these are our essential workers—and to speak up against hazardous working conditions in food facilities and businesses.

“Folks, this is our defining moment as a nation to examine the food system,” Washington concluded.

Lisa Jahns, with the NIFA federal grants program, joined the webinar to outline the Department of Agriculture’s strategic goals, one of which is to supply all Americans with access to a safe and nutritious food supply. In doing so, the agency has millions in grants available for qualified community-based organizations. Jahns outlined the three main types of grants: community food projects, to fight food insecurity and promote self-sufficiency; grants to increase knowledge of agriculture for K-12 school children in underserved rural and urban communities; and the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, to encourage households (including SNAP participants) to purchase foods to improve their health.

As Alaimo had pointed out, prior federal food assistance/entitlement programs must be preserved and strengthened (from SNAP to WIC to school meals programs). While business, labor and charitable efforts can help, they can’t take the place of consistent and considerable government aid.

“The average American taxpayer pays nine times more for the military then for SNAP,” Alaimo said. “These are choices that we as a country are making.”

“The value of the minimum wage, if we had kept up with productivity since the 1950s, should be $20 an hour [as opposed to the current $7.25],” Alaimo added “It’s directly tied to food insecurity. You can think about SNAP as the taxpayer subsidizing these companies’ earnings,” she said, leaving webinar listeners even hungrier for justice.




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