man looking at a canned food
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Food insecurity isn’t a new phenomenon. It was stalking American families long before the COVID-19 global pandemic, with more than 37 million men, women and children going to bed hungry or not having enough to eat. 

But the disruptive nature of the pandemic left as many as 54 million Americans food insecure at its height because millions of workers were forced to stay home during the nationwide lockdown, lost their jobs, had wages and salaries slashed, or were furloughed.

Across the United States, more than 42 million Americans go to bed hungry or don’t have access to healthy food. One in six American children – 13.1 million of them – do not have enough to eat each day. And an additional 14.5 million children live in poverty.

The hungriest states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, include West Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. Out west, one in five Los Angeles residents are experiencing food insecurity; in Florida, 2.2 million people are hungry, 660,500 of them children. 

According to a 2021 report by Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB), 30% of D.C.-area residents were food insecure – underscoring the longstanding structural inequities that have only widened and worsened during the pandemic, said the organization’s President and CEO Radha Muthiah.

America is living in a post-COVID-19 world but hunger is still a troubling, thorny and challenging issue that organizations like Feeding America, Meals on Wheels, WhyHunger, Union Station Homeless Service and CAFB work every day to mitigate and put an end to.

“Prior to the pandemic we provided 30 million meals annually to clients. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, that jumped to between 60-75 million meals – 2½ times our distribution,” said Muthiah. “The pandemic is over and behind us, but the U.S. is still seeing areas of economic need. We’re still projected to distribute 50% more meals this year.”

CAFB has been serving the Washington region for 42 years, a distribution area that includes Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, Alexandria and Manassas, Virginia and Washington, D.C. It works through 350 community-based partners, such as Bread for the City and Martha’s Table and has a direct distribution network to clients from another 300 sites, Muthiah explained.

“No one could fully anticipate the sustained level of need that has been present since the beginning of the year,” she said. “It has affected a wide range of people who are dealing with increased costs of food, rent and transportation, which means a greater dependence on the food bank. In terms of the number of food insecure individuals, the number was 400,000 prior to the pandemic according to a survey earlier this year.”

Across the country, Anne Miskey, CEO of the Pasadena, California-based Union Station Homeless Services, concurred that a range of disparities that existed before the pandemic, have been exacerbated by COVID-19; and income, wealth and other factors are on track to continue to diverge.

“A great deal of the inflation and high prices we’re seeing is because of corporate greed,” said Miskey. “We’re expecting homelessness to skyrocket. During COVID, we rented all these hotels and shelters. We managed pretty well during COVID. Local, state and federal money poured in. But with the funding money gone, we’re trying to figure things out. The cost of living, rent and evictions are going up. The cost of living is driving people into homelessness. Things are going to get pretty bad because of the cost of living.”

Miskey, a nationally recognized expert on strategic, innovative and effective solutions to ending homelessness, added that a number of families are in dire straits, primarily in the Latino community.

 “The Latino homeless population has risen by 25%. African Americans have always had disproportionately high numbers who’re homeless. We’re seeing food insecurity and homelessness hit families and individuals really hard.”

The CAFB report detailed that as more people have lost wages and faced dire economic circumstances, hunger and food insecurity have become more prevalent and visible.

“Food banks across the nation have seen historic highs in demand, with lines of cars snaking across miles of road while people wait for contactless pickup. The Capital Area Food Bank is no exception, having more than doubled the meals we provided — from 30 million to 75 million — to our neighbors in the nation’s capital region over the last year.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, food insecurity is defined as households “uncertain of having or unable to acquire enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.”

Food-insecure households include those with low food security and very low food security. In 2021, data shows, 10.2% (13.5 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during that year.

Household food insecurity affected 12.5% of households with children in 2021. In some of these food-insecure households only adults were food insecure, while in other households, children also experienced food insecurity.

In 6.3% of households with children, only adults were food insecure.

Both children and adults were food insecure in 6.2 % of households with children (2.3 million households).

Muthiah and Miskey said those most deeply affected by the pandemic and the resulting lockdown and economic meltdown are families that were already facing hunger or are one paycheck away from facing hunger. They said the pandemic highlighted the reliance on non-profits and faith-based groups who had to “pick up the slack” in order to support vulnerable families and individuals because government systems had failed.

Both CEOs explained that  it’s impossible to separate food insecurity from gentrification, low wages, displacement and homelessness. COVID-19 merely laid bare the structural, institutional, economic and racial inequities that separate African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans from their White counterparts. Marginalized communities have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, Miskey said.

Miskey added she doesn’t see relief coming and expects things to get worse.

“In these communities, people with means and wealth are turning it into deserving and undeserving,” she said. “We have a myth of everyone having, so it makes society uncomfortable to see so many poor and hungry people. It’s easier to say that those in need made bad choices so they can walk away and absolve themselves of any responsibility in solving this problem.”

CAFB offers hope that in a post-COVID America, with the issues and challenges that have spun off because of the pandemic, people are beginning to have a better understanding and more important conversations about food insecurity. 

“Events across the country have raised the consciousness of many Americans around issues of systemic racism and historical inequities. Public dialogue on these subjects has been more prevalent, frequent and candid, and society has more readily acknowledged connections between these issues and a range of socioeconomic disparities, including those in food security rates,” according to the report.

The report added that a post-COVID America allows for further examination of food insecurity, its contributing factors and impact; it concluded emphasizing the need to evaluate how to address these challenges in fresh ways. 

“Particularly now, as the country is poised to resume more ‘normal’ life in the coming weeks and months, we face an urgent opportunity to address both food insecurity and the broader inequities across our society in new ways.”

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