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Widespread hunger and unemployment drove millions of Americans into food-lines during the Great Depression of 1930; but no one could have predicted that scenario repeating itself some 90 years later, in the land of plenty, plump with the prospect of the American dream.
Today, that dream is fast becoming a nightmare, particularly for minorities, people of color, and marginalized communities.
As COVID-19 wipes out American jobs and the economy, long lines of hungry Americans arrive on foot and in cars outside soup kitchens and food pantries, desperate for handouts to feed their families. In 2020, it’s an unsettling reminder that even a powerful nation like America is no match for a deadly virus trailing dysfunction, death and hunger in its wake.
Experts say that the spike in unemployment and growing food insecurity echo Depression-era levels of job loss and hunger.
The numbers are staggering.
More than 25 million Americans lost jobs due to the pandemic and many of those jobs are permanently disappearing, dashing hopes of a swift economic rebound. Almost 57 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits even as Congress continues to debate the stimulus package. And, a Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey on food insufficiency found that almost 37 million people, including 11 million children, experienced food insecurity sometime in 2018.
That number is expected to rise as the COVID19 pandemic continues to exact a devastating toll on the American public, notes a Feeding America economic model, which estimates that 54 million people, including 18 million children, may experience food insecurity in 2020 – getting scarily close to the 60 million who went hungry during the Great Depression.
People go hungry because inequities like racism, poverty, maldistribution, and other systemic forms of oppression collide to create what Ami McReynolds of the Feeding America Network calls ‘a perfect storm’ that creates food insecurity, despite a global food surplus.
Food insecurity refers to the existence of social conditions, says the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, “that can include household members going hungry because they can’t afford enough food, as well as having to skip meals, compromise on nutrition, or rely on emergency food sources such as food banks, food pantries, or soup kitchens.”
COVID- 19 has made these inequities more visible, forcing the hunger crisis to emerge from the shadows.
Right now, farmers are dumping milk even as grocery stores ration dairy supplies, because the pandemic has disrupted crossovers between food supply chains. So, people experience food insecurity because the food supply chain cannot reorient food distribution from the food service infrastructure (schools, restaurants which are closed), to retail outlets such as grocery stores.
“Hunger has surged during the COVID crisis,” said Rev. David Beckmann, President Emeritus of Bread for the World, echoing the concerns of experts at a briefing on food insecurity hosted by Ethnic Media Services on August 28,
Individuals at risk of food insecurity tend to work in low-income professions, or the leisure and service industries which have closed and laid off staff, reports Feeding America. Families now endure hardships that will increase their reliance on charitable food assistance programs for the foreseeable future. Across the nation, food insecurity has “doubled overall, and tripled among households with children,” and remains “elevated across all states,” says a report from the Northwestern Institute for Policy Research.
Emerging data analyzed by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows that 38 to 46 million people including 9 to17 million children aren’t getting enough to eat now.
Families with children are being hit hardest, said Rev.Beckmann, referring to an alarming new study from the Brookings Institute which found that 14 million children ages 12 and under, are not getting enough to eat during the coronavirus crisis – a rate that’s five times higher than before the pandemic.
Lauren Bauer, a researcher on The Hamilton Project at Brookings, examined census data and found that only 15% of children from low income households who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, were getting the food they need. In many cases, census respondents stated that they could not afford enough food and lacked adequate resources to feed their families.
Bauer also found that minority communities – African-American, Latino, and Asian families with children – were “experiencing food insecurity at even higher and extremely alarming rates” than white families with children.
Advocates for food justice want to solve the hunger crisis by changing the status quo for low wage workers, communities of color and the working poor who experience ‘high rates of poverty and food insecurity.’ That means, fighting the economic disparities and social injustices which are the root causes of hunger, to help people put food on the table. In a pandemic that challenge is even harder.
It will take a coalition of charities, food banks, nonprofits, and government agencies working to develop strategies that build sustainable food systems, to combat the hunger epidemic that people are experiencing in America.
Bread for the World recently published the 2020 Hunger Report, Better Nutrition, Better Tomorrow, which examines the structural inequities within food systems and charts a path to ending the hunger.
Rev.Beckmann called for increased nutrition assistance in SNAP benefit levels and extending the pandemic EBT in the COVID relief bill now under negotiation. He also recommended making federal assistance available to immigrants by reversing recent changes to the Public-Charge rule and allowing basic assistance to undocumented people during the pandemic. As an fillip to its policy reform efforts, Bread for the World urges people to contact members of Congress and demand policy reforms to alleviate hardships for people experiencing hunger and malnutrition .
The USDA enabled schools and community sponsors to set up drive-through pick-ups and meal delivery on bus routes at schools, and, in the summer, offered nationwide waivers that give child nutrition program operators more flexibility in feeding children, while promoting social distancing amid COVID-19 restrictions.
With millions of households struggling to afford the basics, the CBPP is recommending ‘robust’ relief measures like boosting SNAP benefits for all SNAP participants, especially to the poorest households, in order to outlast any fallout from the pandemic.
At the grassroots level, the best way forward is to give communities the power to grow their own food, suggested Jovanna Lopez, a food activist and suburban farmer from San Antonio. It can be hard for people in so-called food deserts to find healthful food.
Lopez is a co-founder of The People’s Nite Market, a farmers market that makes local produce available to a historically disenfranchised population in the city. Vendors accept SNAP, cash or credit cards.
While food banks and emergency food assistance offer a stopgap solution during the pandemic, it will require more permanent, sustainable strategies to put healthy food options on the table of food-insecure families.
At Bread for the World, the way forward is clear. Their call to action includes “tools and training for improved agriculture,.. roads to get food to market,…empowering women to play more active roles in their communities, and government plans to educate, care, and feed their people.”
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents
I’m Hungry: Shutterstock