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Decreased Food Access: Another Challenge of the Coronavirus Pandemic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan
January 25, 2021

Access to safe and nutritious food is a fundamental individual right under the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, disparities and inequities still exist in who is able to access healthy food in the United States. Research indicates that African American and Hispanic populations typically see the highest rates of food insecurity, while white populations typically see lower rates. These disparities and inequities not only impact what food is on one’s table, but also have a negative on many other aspects of a person’s life, including health (both physical and mental), academic achievement, and socioeconomic outcomes. While the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food access is not yet known, reports from nonprofit organizations, advocates, volunteers and community leaders are beginning to shed some light.

Now that the world’s attention has, somewhat understandably, shifted toward addressing the pandemic, and as nations across the world are facing economic challenges, many organizations that are working to address inequities in healthy food access have not received typical levels of support. Rather, they have received fewer donations (including donations of funds and food) and have seen a decrease in the number of people signing up to volunteer. At the same time, demand is on the rise as the economic downturn caused by the pandemic has led more to rely on food bank services. For example, a November 2020 report from Feeding America shows that food banks across the country have seen a 60 percent increase in demand compared to 2019.

Unfortunately, the need for food banks and other organizations promoting healthy food access seems likely to continue growing. When the pandemic began in Spring 2020, approximately 40 million Americans lost their job. In addition, a study of 8,500 participants found that 31% of unemployed individuals reported experiencing food insecurity and 33% said that they were now eating less due to not being able to afford food. Additionally, those who were already experiencing higher levels of food insecurity (e.g. families with children) reported the highest rates of a new decline in income following the start of the pandemic. Although the federal government did provide some forms of financial assistance to struggling individuals and families, many programs that were providing help have since run out. Though it seems likely that additional assistance will be provided by the Biden administration, struggles continue.

Children experiencing food insecurity also saw their challenges compounded by the pandemic, especially those who relied upon free breakfasts and lunches at school (prior to the pandemic, data indicate that about 29.7 million children took advantage of free lunches and 14.7 million children took advantage of free breakfasts each year). With many schools closed, these free meals became less accessible to those in need. Some schools have adapted by continuing to offer free breakfasts and lunches available for pickup at the school, or by delivering bagged meals to neighborhoods using a bus and volunteers. While these initiatives did help to ensure that children were still able to receive meals, some volunteers found that not all families were able to drive to schools on a daily basis or to be at neighborhood delivery spots at the required time. Thus, some children and families still fell through the cracks.

The coronavirus has also led to disruptions in food supply chains, which makes producing and distributing healthy food more of a challenge. A recent report from the RAND Corporation shows how illnesses, quarantining, poor working conditions and a lack of paid sick leave have caused worker shortages at all points of the supply chain. In addition, ongoing economic uncertainty and a decrease in consumer spending have led to both permanent and temporary closures of food suppliers such as grocery stores and farmers markers. Many of those remaining open have now implemented restrictions, such as limits on the number of people allowed in the store, which add additional challenges and delays.

Looking forward, vaccines are a primary hope for providing relief from the pandemic. As this relief may still be months off, it seems likely that economic hardships will continue for many even if the Biden administration increases aid. In the meantime, those working to address food access challenges and to providing healthy food for members of their community must work together in a coordinated approach if real change is to be made.

Author: Brittany Keegan, Ph.D. is the director of research and outreach at the VCU Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy. Her research focuses on nonprofit organizations, refugee/immigration policy, and gender-based violence prevention and intervention. Twitter: @BritKeegan

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