Addressing Food Insecurity and Nutrition Concerns During COVID-19
WASHINGTON —The pandemic and its accompanying economic downturn have led to unprecedented challenges including unanticipated job loss and difficulty accessing affordable and nutritious foods. In fact, more Americans than ever have needed to make use of food banks and assistance programs.
As negotiations on a ‘Phase 4’ stimulus package stall before the Nov. 3 election, the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C., explored public and private-sector solutions to address food insecurity and improving diet quality during COVID.
“There’s no question that there’s a link between nutrition and health outcomes,” said Dan Glickman, former agriculture secretary, who convened a panel to discuss what role quality nutrition plays in reducing disease and driving down health care costs. The discussion included high-level policymakers as well as notable chef/activist José Andrés and inner-city community non-profits.
“There’s uncertainty in many parts of the country… even without COVID, I think we have a national emergency,” agreed Rep. Donald Bacon, R-Neb., “Trends are building in the wrong direction… I worry about what that means for national health in the long run. It’s going to put a lot of strain on health institutions and have a wide-ranging impact.”
Calling for a “cultural change,” Bacon also recognized COVID’s immediate-term impact on nutrition, advocating for an increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds, an extension of the Pandemic Electronic Benefits program, and other flexibilities and additional emergency benefits to continue operating children and family nutritional programs.
Pam Miller, administrator of the Federal Nutrition Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees 15 supplemental nutrition programs including SNAP, Women Infants Children (WIC), and the school meals program. As the largest portion of USDA’s budget is in food programs, she calls these programs “the federal nutrition safety net.”
Since March, she says the Department has ramped up grab-and-go meals and delivery services including “emergency allotments to the SNAP program and substantial support to America’s food banks” as well as new programs with private companies like McLean Global and PepsiCo. The agency has created Pandemic EBT, which provides the equivalent monetary value of school breakfast and lunch to those who would have received free school meals, and transitioned to online purchasing in SNAP in 46 states and D.C.
“[But] we cannot simply feed our way out of hunger,” said Miller, who touted the Service’s programs that extend beyond food assistance, like the SNAP Employment and Training program for economic stability and independence.
Representatives from the fruit and vegetable industry as well as America’s largest protein producers discussed pandemic challenges and efforts taken to increase access to their products as well as the importance of offering critical fresh options across America, especially for inner-city and rural consumers.
“It’s all part of the same puzzle, ending hunger and getting people the right nutrition they need to lead healthy lives,” said Luis Guardia, President of the Food Research & Action Center. To address some 30 million adults in the U.S. currently living with children who do not have enough to eat, he praised programs like SNAP that have a healthy effect on people and on jobs, but agreed that the nation needs to “look at holistically tying food security to jobs and the environment. ”
His suggestions included WIC cash vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables with specific allotments targeted to fresh foods and making SNAP “more than a cash transfer program,” potentially adding monetary parameters around nutritional choices.
Yet all of this is nowhere near enough for anti-hunger advocate, restaurateur, and founder of World Central Kitchen, José Andrés, who has provided over 25 million meals in cities across America during the health crisis.
“When we go to the streets of America… winter is coming,” Andrés insisted. “It seems we sell a very rosy picture, but we need to be more pragmatic.”
“Planet Earth is able to produce enough food to feed every citizen on this planet and more…[yet] there are hunger lines in America,” he said. “The only way to fix problems we see [is] when we recognize that the problems exist.”
Suggesting that we “use food to empower communities,” Andrés added that “it is up to the federal government to end food deserts, and up to us to produce foods that in the process of feeding ourselves [do] not pollute our waterways… We must do better in the way we are raising and producing food.”
He called for the creation of a U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture and for policies to have “boots on the ground ensuring that legislation [meets its] intended effect.”
“We take food for granted,” insisted Andrés. “If we don’t start thinking of food in a more serious way, one day we may wake up and realize that… hunger is a bigger issue and it may be too late to fix it.”