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Hunger Surges During COVID Crisis

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.

Local produce at The People’s Nite Market, San Antonio, TX

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.”

“It’s more than just giving people a meal a day.”


Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents

Photo by Steve Knutson on Unsplash

I’m Hungry: Shutterstock

 

On The Brink Of Starvation

Drone photographs of a parking lot outside a San Antonio food bank last week showed a staggering 10,000 cars awaiting delivery of food aid packages. Though media coverage is awash with statistics on unemployment rates and job losses caused by the pandemic, nothing captured the desperation of millions of Americans unable to put food on the table, like the image of the parking lot packed with cars of people in need of food.

“”I panicked. I’ve never seen a line that long,” food bank CEO Eric Cooper told NPR, as more than 4000 families, in addition to the 6000 who had registered, showed up tor free food.

Hunger and food insecurity is surging in the US as poor and unemployed households in a crippled economy struggle to make choices between rent, food or transportation.

Thousands of children who rely on low cost or free lunches provided by the National School Lunch Program are severely impacted by the food crisis. The program feeds almost 30 million school children every day. But as school closures forced by COVID-19 shutdowns disrupt access to nutritious meals, officials across the country are scrambling to find ways to make sure vulnerable children don’t go hungry.

And, while countries like the US try to avert coronavirus-related food crises for their people, COVID-19 is on the verge of creating a devastating hunger pandemic in the developing world.

“Even before COVID-19 hit, 135 million people on the planet were already struggling with acute food insecurity due to pre-existing shocks or crises,” explained FAO Director Dominique Burgeon in an interview.

“This means they were already on the extreme end of the hunger spectrum-weak, and less well-equipped to fend off the virus. A crisis within a crisis could emerge.”

COVID-19 could have catastrophic consequences in countries where vulnerable populations are already besieged by malnutrition, food scarcity, inadequate healthcare systems and lost livelihoods. David M. Beasley executive director of the U.N. World Food Program warns that the pandemic has the potential to push millions “to the brink of starvation” and detonate a hunger pandemic that may “sow the seeds of famine in its wake.”

This view was shared by several experts at a telebriefing organized by Ethnic Media Services (May 8), to understand the mounting health and hunger challenges that COVID-19 is imposing on the developing world.

Dulce Gamboa, a senior associate at Bread for the World, shared evidence  from the World Food Program that the number of people facing food crises would soar to 265 million by the end of the year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The world has never seen an ‘unprecedented’ hunger emergency like this,” she said, where millions of people facing a hunger crisis around the world don’t even know where their next meal is coming from.

People living in poverty and poorer economic nations face the prospect of starvation because lockdowns and social distancing measures during the pandemic undermine their ability to work and earn an income, while disrupting agricultural production and supply routes.

Almost 94 million people from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central America and the Middle East will require humanitarian food assistance, stated Gamboa. A USAID Famine Early Warning System reported that the macroeconomic devastation, driven by a multitude of factors – protracted conflict, droughts, displacement and sudden loss of income and livelihood – was compounded by the hunger pandemic.

Though there are no changes in food prices, said Gamboa, “the food security situation for people living in poverty is likely to deteriorate significantly worldwide,” especially in countries like Sudan that were struggling even before the outbreak.  The hunger crisis is also being monitored in  Zimbabwe, Southern Africa, DRC and the Horn of Africa.

Poorer households in the informal economies of Latin American countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, have been impacted by declining remittances from the US, while in Venezuela, where nearly nine million were already suffering from malnutrition, people are under siege both from a collapsed economy and the fallout from the pandemic.

In Latin America, where an estimated 130 million live in low income barrios and villages, people are worried about being able to feed their families. They fear that hunger will kill them before the coronavirus does, said Gamboa.

How will poorer nations fight the virus “as the economic and health crisis becomes a global hunger crisis?

“A rise in malnutrition is inevitable,” said Gamboa, as COVID-19 exacerbates conditions for vulnerable populations at risk of poor nutrition.  Reduced dietary quality will impact immune systems, increase underlying health conditions, and threaten the healthcare of mothers and children. Newborns have a 100 day window to establish a strong immune system, says Gamboa. “A young, malnourished child will be stunted for life”

As COVID-19 churns through communities, upending the course of daily life as it chokes off access to food, healthcare and money, the FAO has launched a $110 million appeal for humanitarian aid to protect the food security of vulnerable populations.

Gamboa is urging the US to lead a strong global response to protect the food security of and ensure $12 billion in funding for global food, health and humanitarian assistance.

“There are red flags,” said Gamboa, which indicate that famine could be likely in the absence of humanitarian aid.

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents.

Photo by V Srinivasan on Unsplash

Photo by Muhammad Muzamil on Unsplash

 

Developing World Reels From Pandemic Fallout

More than 265 million around the world currently face food insecurity in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and several million have lost their life-line of remittances, according to experts speaking at an ethnic media conference May 8 on the pandemic’s impact on the developing world.  

“COVID-19 is expected to double the number of people facing food insecurity. The world has never seen a pandemic like this,” said Dulce Gamboa, associate for Latino relations at Bread for the World.

Remittances — money sent from people working abroad to their families back home — have taken a huge hit, said Demetrios Papademetriou, who co-founded the Migration Policy Institute and is currently a Distinguished Transatlantic Fellow at the Washington DC-based think tank. The World Bank has estimated that $142 billion has been lost in remittances, as foreign workers lose their jobs to the coronavirus crisis.

“Remittances are an essential lifeline for people who receive that money. They will be thinner and more precarious,” said Papademetriou.

He equated the COVID-19 crisis to the decade-long Great Depression in the U.S. in the 1930s, and characterized it as an “economic abyss.” 

Daniel Nepstad, President and Founder of Earth Innovation Institute, discussed the impact of the pandemic on the Amazon rainforest, the largest tropical rainforest in the world. The summer months are typically burning season in the forest, as villagers burn patches to use for agricultural purposes.

In a normal year, thousands of people would get respiratory illnesses as forests burn. This year, however, Nepstad predicted an increased number of deaths as the COVID-19 virus attacks people whose immune systems are already compromised.

In Manaus, Brazil, deep in the Amazon rainforest, Nepstad reported that mass graves have been erected for those succumbing to the virus. In Loreto, Peru, a lack of oxygen bottles has contributed to a high mortality rate from COVID. 

The biggest threat to the rain forest comes from people fleeing there as a last resort, Nepstad said. Farmers can no longer bring their products to markets, which have shuttered in the wake of the pandemic. More than 200,000 migrants have left Lima, Peru by foot, walking through deserts and up into the highlands and from there to the rainforest for some measure of food security.

Nepstad urged the global community to support farmers in the Amazon — providing them with seed capital to grow tree crops which have a longer life-span — and also advocated for the formalizing of supply chains and for fair price support. 

“Now is the time for solidarity, listening to local leaders and understanding what they need,” said Nepstad. “We tend to demonize the people that are clearing forests, but I think it’s important to have more nuance there.”

“Lots of people are extracting food by clearing the rain forests. We eat that food around the world.”

Even if there is no surge in food prices, the global hunger pandemic will continue, said Gamboa, noting that the situation will deteriorate most rapidly in countries where a large percentage of the labor force works in the informal economy.

Yemen currently faces the worst food insecurity crisis, said Gamboa, with 53 percent of its population — almost 16 million people — facing starvation. 

Sudan and Nigeria are likely to be hit by famines, she said. Zimbabwe, South Africa, the Congo, and the Horn of Africa are also facing massive food insecurity issues due to high inflation, poor harvests and drought. 

“Malnourished people have less effective immune systems,” said Gamboa, adding that a child who is malnourished during his first 1,000 days of life will face a lifetime of stunted growth, both physically and intellectually.

“People are saying ‘we’re going to die of hunger before we die of coronavirus.’”

“The U.S. needs to have strong leadership to help millions of people around the world, including women and children,” stated Gamboa. 

Global migration has ground to a halt as countries close their borders and restrict incoming travel, said Papademetriou. However, there has been a significant amount of labor migration as people in developing countries return home, he said.

“There has been an elite consensus that has allowed migration to continue to be large and to thrive because of the demography of many of the rich countries,” said Papademetriou. “We will have to see if that elite consensus continues to hold as this pandemic continues,” he said, adding that countries will have to reassess afresh the number of immigrant workers they need, especially in the agricultural sector.

Papademetriou said it was too early to assess whether the U.S. would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants, many of whom are now considered essential workers.

“I have spent 14 years of attempting to come up with compromises that legislators on both sides were able to support. We have failed every single time.”

“The last time we failed big was in 2013 under President Obama. So it’s difficult for me to be optimistic,” said Papademetriou.

 

This article was published with permission from the author.