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During the Covid-19 shutdown in 2020, it became common to see photos of lines of hundreds of cars at a time waiting to receive items from food banks.
Experts feared that the initial dramatic increase in needs, driven by a wave of unemployment and school closings, would persist throughout the pandemic. But new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Insecurity Report revealed that food insecurity remained largely unchanged between 2019 and 2020.
The reason why the worst crisis was avoided? A swift federal response that included extending food stamps and ensuring children had access to the meals they received at school.
But the pandemic has also revealed how much of a problem food insecurity is and who is disproportionately affected, even in the absence of a global pandemic.
What’s in the USDA Food Insecurity Report?
Overall, the rate of food insecurity did not change from 2019 to 2020, remaining at 10.5%.
Rapid investments in federal nutrition programs as well as community food banks tailoring their services “averted what could have been a massive increase in food insecurity across the country,” said Vince Hall, head of government relations for the Feeding America network of food banks.
But while the rate hasn’t changed, it still signals the alarm: around 38 million people in total, or about one in 10 Americans, lived in food insecure households in 2020 because of their circumstances. financial.
Food insecurity means that a household does not always have the financial means to purchase enough food or to purchase a variety of nutritious foods for its members. They may eat smaller portions than they would like or prepare the same basic meals repeatedly due to financial constraints.
In its most serious form, people facing food insecurity go hungry because they are forced to skip meals, sometimes for an entire day. It affects 9.4 million adults and over half a million children.
Hall says the pandemic hunger response provided a model for how these and similar programs could be scaled up in the longer term.
Food insecurity of households with children
The food insecurity rate of households with children fell from 13.6% in 2019 to 14.8% in 2020.
A total of 11.7 million children lived in food insecure households in 2020. “Children are the most vulnerable in our communities, they are completely dependent on the rest of us for their care,” says Hall. .
And the economic constraints of the pandemic, namely the millions of people without work for reasons totally beyond their control, have made it more difficult for many households to provide for their children.
Many policy changes during the pandemic focused on the nutritional needs of children. Although schools, on which many children from low-income households depend for free or reduced breakfast and lunch each weekday, have been closed, the temporary expansion of the Pandemic EBT program (P- EBT) enabled families to purchase groceries to replace these meals.
Many students were also able to pick up meals at their school or other places in their community. Households benefiting from the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC benefits have seen their food allowances increase.
P-EBT reduced child food insecurity by 30% in the week following the disbursement of funds compared to the previous week, according to analysis of Census Bureau survey data by the Hamilton project of the Brookings Institution . It also reduced the likelihood that household members sometimes or often did not have enough to eat.
However, according to Judi Bartfeld, a professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there have been delays in the deployment of P-EBT, which has hurt many households who have had to wait. help. “Food security really depends on consistency in access to food and money to buy food, as many households do not have reserves to fall back on when the flow of food or dollars is low. disturbed.
Read more: Back to school includes free lunch for everyone this year
Food insecurity for black and Hispanic households
Black and Hispanic households have long faced higher rates of food insecurity than their peers, in part fueled by a history of systemic racism that has created economic disadvantage for these groups.
The economic challenges of the pandemic have particularly affected non-white populations. A survey by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health released last September found that a majority of Latino, Black and Native American households said they had encountered serious financial problems during the pandemic.
Last year, 21.7% of black headed households experienced food insecurity, up from 19.1% in 2019. For Hispanic headed households, the food insecurity rate was 17. 2%.
For households headed by a Caucasian person, the rate of food insecurity was 7.1%, down from 7.9% the previous year.
“New evidence, for example, shows that unemployed black workers were less likely to receive unemployment insurance benefits during the pandemic,” Bartfeld said.
Communities of color are more likely to be rent surcharged – that is, they spend more than 30% of their income on rent each month. “And of course, communities of color had much higher rates of covid hospitalization, which has ripple effects on financial security and therefore food security.”
Read more: Covid and race: households of color suffer the most from the financial consequences of the pandemic despite trillions in aid
What are policy makers doing about poverty and food insecurity?
“Policymakers on both sides acted immediately to deal with unprecedented economic disruption due to the closure of businesses and schools,” at the onset of the pandemic, Hall said. This swift, unified action, he says, has been so effective that it offers lessons for a post-pandemic approach to hunger.
For example, the rapid creation of flexibilities within SNAP to deliver greater benefits to more people has demonstrated how much this can reduce food insecurity. “[Feeding America is] strongly believes that improving the SNAP program and expanding its capacity to serve Americans facing hunger is the most effective immediate tool available to us, ”said Hall.
This month, the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor proposed spending around $ 35 billion on infant nutrition programs to expand eligibility for free school meals and modernize kitchens. school. The bill also proposes to expand the summer EBT program nationwide to ensure that households with children can get meals during the summer months when schools are closed.
The Summer EBT program was in the pilot stage before the pandemic and was used as a framework for the temporary P-EBT program which provided grocery cards to households during school closings.
Read more: Extended SNAP Benefits Expire September 30: Here’s What Happens After
The Biden administration has also come up with programs that could indirectly benefit people who have difficulty feeding themselves.
These changes include the establishment of 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave and universal preschool. Extensions to the American Rescue Plan Act grants that lower the cost of health plans under the Affordable Care Act, as well as an extension of the expanded child tax credit, could put more money into them. household pockets.
“Changes outside of food aid are just as valuable,” says Bartfeld. “The best way to increase food security is for people to have sufficient and reliable disposable income to buy the food they need. “
Under the Build Back Better law, most households would pay no more than 7% of their income for child care. The House of Representatives was due to vote on this package next week, although the vote is likely to be delayed due to negotiations over the price of the package.
Bartfeld says making the child tax credit permanent could have a significant impact because it provides predictable income. Speeding up rent assistance and creating affordable housing could also help. “People often prioritize rent over food when there isn’t enough money for everyone,” she says.