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Concerns About Food Insecurity Loom Large Amid Pandemic

Once the coronavirus pandemic increased consumer demand for produce and nonperishables, local retailers and wholesalers were no longer able to contribute portions of their inventory to the Capital Area Food Bank, one of several entities that have been distributing food to the more than 400,000 people across the D.C. metropolitan area experiencing hunger.

To meet this pressing need, Capital Area Food Bank has relied less on its traditional retail partners, and more on private donations and purchases from wholesalers. In preparation for COVID-19’s long stay, the provider has also planned to purchase 500 truckloads of food this fiscal year, a $16 million expenditure that quadruples what’s been recorded previously.

President and CEO Radha Muthiah said such moves are predicted to create more than 50 million meals this year, all of which are distributed in conjunction with other organizations and community groups for what’s anticipated to be more than 600,000 people across the D.C. metropolitan area.

“People lost their jobs and now they’re not able to put as much food on the table as before. There are larger issues happening within the system in terms of food availability,” Muthiah told The Informer. “We are cognizant of supply chain challenges in the fall and winter and are stockpiling for food so we have enough. We are driven by the needs of our communities, and look into the best ways [like] direct distributions.”

Muthiah noted that the Capital Area Food Bank has endeavored to bridge a gap that an influx of SNAP benefits could fill, describing that safety net as a crucial part in curbing food insecurity and boosting economic activity during the coronavirus pandemic.

As indicated in the Capital Area Food Bank’s Hunger Report 2020, unemployment and food insecurity existed before the coronavirus pandemic because of the high cost of living in the D.C. metropolitan region. The July 22 document said that COVID-19 exacerbated such conditions, to the point where the region’s food insecure population will grow between 48 and 60 percent within a year.

“The hunger report sounded the alarm about the increase in food-insecure individuals,” Multhiah said as she explained trends in hunger insecurity.

“Over the last few years, the rates of food insecurity have been decreasing. We have been pleased with that,” she added. “Our strategies are aiming to decrease that further. It’s becoming clear that we’re in this for the long haul, and this pandemic is much more of a marathon.”

July job figures showed slight improvement, with the unemployment rate falling at right above 10 percent, due in part to the addition of 1.8 million jobs.

Since March, states have been able to use administrative flexibility in the disbursement of SNAP benefits to increasing needs during the pandemic. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has hinted at the possibility of limiting the approval of benefits within the next couple of months at a time when increasing food prices are pinching pockets.

As energy consumption decreased during the economic shutdown, food purchases have increased by nearly six percent, while the price of food has gone up at nearly the same rate. According to data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, foods that have seen the greatest price hike include beef and veal, and eggs. Vegetables, tomatoes, and potatoes have also seen a price increase of between 2 percent and 13 percent.

After months of providing some cushion, the pandemic relief package that allotted an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits expired on July 31. Last weekend, President Donald Trump (R) signed an executive order doling out $300 per week in federal benefits that the states would match with $100. With states facing budget shortfalls, however, it has yet to be seen whether they would follow through on that commitment, especially since they too are lobbying the federal government for an additional $500 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds.

These trends have compelled concern among local public health professionals about the allure of unhealthy food choices during the pandemic, and its effects on a population at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

For instance, Dr. Yolandra Hancock, a public health reform advocate who championed a sugary drink excise tax, noted that the stress of the increased economic strife drives people to patronize fast food establishments that have been strategically placed in communities of color.

She said this reinforces systemic inequities plaguing low-income, resource-starved communities in the District. In touting the expansion of SNAP and unemployment benefits as a solution to a growing hunger crisis, Hancock posited that the U.S. government should consider eliminating what she described as archaic time limits on eligibility.

“If the perception is that eating healthy costs more, you’ll be driven to eat carry out and fast food that facilitates chronic illness development,” Hancock said. “COVID-19 has impacted mental health in significant ways. The body is physiologically driven to junk food. Your dopamine increases when you eat foods that make you feel good. Chronic illnesses [from food that’s not healthy for you] affect the immune system and play a significant role in increasing the severity of COVID-19.”

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