Auburn expert weighs in on food insecurity in the time of COVID-19

Published: June 03, 2020
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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the U.S. food system, leading to a rise in food insecurity rates and increasing the demand at food banks and food pantries nationwide to feed more people than ever. Food insecurity occurs when a household has difficulty providing enough food due to a lack of resources. Alicia Powers, managing director of Auburn University’s Hunger Solutions Institute in the College of Human Sciences, explains how the pandemic will continue to affect food insecurity rates and offers resources to those in need, including a new initiative to be launched by End Child Hunger in Alabama this month.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, what are we seeing in terms of food insecurity? Has there been a significant increase in the number of families that need assistance?

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing long-term recovery necessitated by the pandemic, the number of individuals experiencing food insecurity is expected to dramatically increase. In 2018, an estimated 1 in 9 Americans lacked consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life—food insecurity. This equals more than 37 million people and includes 11 million children. A report by Feeding America noted the number of Americans facing food insecurity in 2020 could escalate to more than 54 million, including 18 million children. This level of child food insecurity will be the highest total reported since the USDA initiated measurement of child food insecurity 25 years ago. This level will be even higher than the 17.2 million children who faced food insecurity during the Great Recession. This level translates to 1 in 4 children in the U.S. not knowing from where their next meal will come.

Particular populations face food insecurity at disproportionate rates, including people of color, children, senior adults, single headed households and households with limited resources.

What resources are currently available for those who need assistance? What resources have emerged since the pandemic first hit the U.S.?

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency food organizations, such as food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens, quickly supported and continue to support food needs of the growing number of households facing food insecurity. Not only did emergency food organizations quickly respond to the increase in individuals and households seeking assistance, these organizations increased support while working with a limited availability of food, adjusted food distribution procedures and reduced volunteer capacity.

Some federally funded food assistance programs are entitlement programs that can quickly shift to the changing needs of the American population, expanding during times of poverty and unemployment and shrinking as the need is met and reduced. SNAP and Child Nutrition Programs are entitlement programs and have been and will continue to be important food safety nets while many American citizens seek employment and a living wage post-COVID-19.

Other federally funded food assistance programs are discretionary programs whose funding levels are determined each year through the appropriations process. These programs, therefore, have limited dollars available during a particular year and cannot be as responsive to the changing needs of the American population. Once state allocated dollars for these programs are spent, additional federal support is not available. WIC and some Senior Nutrition Programs are discretionary programs.

All federally funded food assistance programs have particular regulations that must be followed. In response to COVID-19, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, or FNS, issued numerous waivers with regards to regulations to ensure the safety and health of those preparing and distributing the food, as well as those receiving the food. For instance, the Summer Food Service Program typically requires onsite consumption of food; a USDA FNS waiver allows offsite consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Likewise, many in the food industry, which serves an integral role in food access also have adapted operational procedures to ensure safety and health for all. Grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, farmers’ markets and other direct to consumer mechanisms are all important in providing access to food for the American population. Even considering supply chain limitations and operational procedures, these integral food providers have adapted and responded to meet the needs of the American population.

What is the purpose of ECHA's County Food Guides? How does it work? How will it help, especially under the current environment?

While food availability is being addressed by multiple levels in the food distribution system, food insecurity still abounds, particularly in light of COVID-19. One contributing factor is limited accessibility of food. Ever-changing days of operation, hours of operation and operational procedures make it challenging to know when food resources are accessible and what procedures must be followed to access these food provisions. Further, individuals who are facing food insecurity for the first time are unaware of the food resources available for immediate assistance.

End Child Hunger in Alabama, or ECHA, is launching the ECHA County Food Guide Project to address this shortcoming. The ECHA County Food Guide Project aims to equip families throughout Alabama with comprehensive and updated information about local food resources. The ECHA County Food Guide website features an Alabama map with each county labeled. To view food resources available in a specific county, simply click on the county on the map. Each county’s food guide includes most direct to consumer food resources available in a county, such as child nutrition resources, senior nutrition resources, food pantries, soup kitchens, farmers’ markets, SNAP resources, WIC resources, grocery stores and many others. A team of dedicated volunteers and community partners, ECHA County Ambassadors, is working to ensure information in county food guides is up-to-date and includes necessary details for accessing each food resource.

For potential volunteers, where can they find information on how to help and where?

ECHA is still looking for volunteers to support the ECHA County Food Guide Project. If you have a phone, computer and internet connectivity, as well as two hours a week to share with this effort, we want to hear from you. The volunteer form can be accessed here. An ECHA team member will be in touch with you soon to provide additional information.

What lessons can we take away from the last several months about decreasing hunger in our state and nationally?

Food insecurity exists in the U.S. It existed before COVID-19 and will continue to exist until we address the shortcomings of the food system and other factors contributing to food insecurity, like poverty. A foundational principle of the Hunger Solutions Institute is that hunger is a solvable program, but only when the relevant knowledge from all disciplines is combined with abilities and strengths of all sectors. By creating multi-sector partnerships at the community, state, domestic and global levels, HSI shares knowledge and best practices and creates multi-sector coalitions to leverage the power of collective action, living into the College of Human Sciences mission to improve quality of life and help change the world. End Child Hunger in Alabama and its statewide activities are only one example of this work.

Dependence on charitable and non-profit emergency food resources will never overcome food insecurity, hunger and its associated complexities. Policies and government support is absolutely necessary to address specific food system shortcomings, but also factors contributing to food insecurity in the U.S. and around the globe.

Food insecurity highlights yet another national and global system in which injustice exists. People of color and additional minority communities disproportionately face food insecurity in Alabama, the U.S. and globally. Addressing disparities in food access have been public health priorities for some time, but more work is needed. Additionally, a shift in policies is absolutely necessary to overcome systemic racism and other discriminatory cultural norms contributing to disparities in food insecurity, such as a living wage and supportive child care infrastructure.

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