Food Insecurity and the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has far-reaching effects beyond those who are infected by the new virus. The near-total shutdown of the economy has led to mass unemployment, as well as new costs for those suddenly stuck at home with their entire families. Millions of parents, who relied on free school lunches to help feed their children, have been left struggling to fill extra mouths, a challenge exacerbated by the fact that many of these families have been thrown into precarious unemployment. Food insecurity has existed in American long before COVID-19 hit. It’s estimated that as many as 23 million Americans live in areas termed food deserts, for their lack of access to grocery stores. In 2018, according to the US Department of Agriculture, 11.5 percent of the American population was food insecure, a number that includes millions of children. The pandemic has thrown this pre-existing crisis into sharp relief and even worsened it. 

In mid-May, in Eastern Massachusetts, US non-profit organization Feeding America reported a 59 percent increase in overall food insecurity due to the pandemic, projecting that, ultimately as many as one in eight people in the area will experience food insecurity this year as a result. In New York, Food Bank For New York City has revealed that food pantries across the city have seen huge increases in visitors in the past months, with most reporting an increase in newly unemployed or furloughed workers. Feeding America reports that, more broadly across the nation, workers with service jobs are particularly at risk for increased food insecurity, given that public-facing businesses have been closed indefinitely, or markedly reduced employees. 

The dumping of millions of pounds of fresh produce, milk, and eggs was one of the most visually shocking news cycle headlines during the early days of the pandemic. At the same time, media respondents focused on the parents who for the first time had to rely on food banks to feed their family, calling to attention the long hours, occasionally from dawn to dusk, people had to wait. Witnessing the simultaneous waste of tons of food and the ever-growing lines at local food banks was the first time many Americans saw a profound contradiction in our country’s priorities and began to critically question our agriculture, food transport, and grocery retail systems. 

To combat the new rise in food insecurity, Massachusetts has awarded millions of dollars in grants to combat the issue. The governor has set up a grant program specifically to support food security infrastructure, focusing on supporting the surge in demand for resources from food banks. While it is urgent to support food banks at this time, the forward-thinking aspects of the grant program are just as, if not more, critical to the sustainability of our food systems. The program’s focus on locally produced food, equitable access to food, and strengthening, by shortening, the food systems that connect farmers to people are initiatives that need to be taken up nationwide.

The U.S. has always prided itself on its surplus; the land of overstocked produce aisles and thousands of chains of restaurants. But the pandemic has given us a moment to reflect; we need to be asking ourselves and our representatives what our goals are and what we want to represent. Do we want to continue being the country that focuses on profit and overproduction while millions of people are food-insecure or do we want to be the country that ensures everyone is fed and secure first before even contemplating profit? While food banks serve a critical role today in feeding a large part of our population, shouldn’t we demand a system in which no one goes hungry and the need for food banks is obsolete? We ought not to simply rely on charities and philanthropic efforts to keep our country running—rather, we must demand a fundamental restructuring of our social and political system so that a person’s socioeconomic status no longer defines their access to food or their health.

AUTHOR: Valentina Rojas Posada

PHOTO CREDITS 
People Serving Food 1 – Joel Muniz 
People Serving Food 2 – Natalie Kolb 
People Serving Food 3 – Joel Muniz