America’s Hunger Pandemic Is Getting Worse
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Early in the pandemic, Americans lined up for hours outside of food banks, awaiting their chance to collect groceries. Many of them had experienced food insecurity before Covid-19. Tens of millions of others were new to such assistance. Only thanks to emergency federal intervention was a serious hunger crisis averted in 2020.
Unfortunately, even as the pandemic has eased by some measures, a range of factors is still preventing many Americans from finding enough to eat. Those stresses continue to fall on the nation’s food banks. As Covid drags on, their mission is becoming harder and more expensive. To ensure that the lingering effects of the coronavirus don’t lead to sparse dinner tables this winter, Congress should step up for the charities that keep Americans fed.
Food insecurity is a condition in which individuals and families lack access to enough food to live a healthy life. In 2019, 10.9% of Americans, or roughly 35 million people, fit that description at some point. Government programs like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) helped reduce those numbers. So did food banks.
Even with such help, though, food insecurity persisted. When Covid and its economic disruptions hit, already vulnerable demographics found themselves in particular need. So too did the newly unemployed, those whose hours were cut substantially, and parents suddenly forced to stay home due to closed schools and daycares. The impact on food banks was dramatic: According to the charity Feeding America, the number of people needing food assistance soared to 60 million in 2020, up 50% from the previous year.
Congress responded with a range of emergency measures, including expanded SNAP benefits and school-meal delivery programs. But for food banks, the most important step was a $1.2 billion injection to the Emergency Food Assistance Program, under which the Department of Agriculture buys food from farmers and distributes it to states. In 2020, that program and others allowed Feeding America and its associates to distribute 2.5 billion meals. That assistance worked wonders: Despite the pandemic and associated disruptions, American food insecurity didn’t increase in 2020.
Second Harvest Heartland, a Twin Cities food bank, has distributed nearly 200 million pounds of food since the start of the pandemic. Even so, demand has yet to slacken. Allison O’Toole, the group’s chief executive officer, told me that food shelf visits are still 30% over pre-pandemic numbers, in line with what other U.S. food banks are reporting. “I would frankly like to say that the worst of the Covid hunger crisis is over. And it’s just not true,” she said.
She cited many factors at play in Minnesota, including high Covid hospitalization rates, the end of emergency unemployment and SNAP benefits, and food inflation — which not only hurts individuals and families, but also affects food banks that rely on donations and their own food purchases. “We are seeing prices going up, from canned veggies and fruit, to proteins.” The last category is particularly worrisome: At Second Harvest, meat donations are down roughly 30%.
In 2020, government aid helped fill such gaps. But many of those programs ended over the past year, while private donations have often dried up. Food banks have increased their purchases by 58% compared to 2020, but rising prices and supply-chain disruptions have meant that those purchases don’t go as far they once did, imperiling nutrition for those who can least afford it.
As the U.S. faces new variants and another Covid winter, that’s a looming crisis that the government can’t ignore. Although Congress is expected to offer another $2 billion for the Emergency Food Assistance Program in 2022, America’s food banks — led by Feeding America — argue that’s insufficient to address the current wave of those needing help. They’re seeking an additional $900 million to help stock their shelves and meet sustained demand.
It’s a reasonable request, and Congress should approve it. But these emergency interventions should prompt deeper investigations into how and why food insecurity remains a chronic, decades-old problem in America — one that Covid has only made worse.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."
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