Priorities for Action: Responding to Growing Hunger Due to COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has shined a spotlight on the gaping holes in our nation’s safety net. MAZON has been firing on all cylinders to ensure that all Americans can feed themselves and their families with dignity. Grounded in our strong foundation of Jewish values, MAZON continues to call attention to the disparate impact of COVID-19 on the populations whose food insecurity challenges have long been overlooked — including military families, veterans, Native Americans, single mothers, and LGBTQ older adults.

Unprecedented Hunger & Hardship

  • Nearly 40 million Americans struggled to put food on the table before COVID-19. This crisis is exacerbating their hardship, and it has swelled the number of food insecure Americans to a stunning 80 million.
  • Food pantries and distribution sites are vital emergency resources for families struggling with food insecurity in America, but the charitable sector cannot address the full scope of hunger, and it was never designed to do so.
  • The disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Black, Latino, and other communities of color is staggering evidence that pervasive and systemic racism exacerbates the challenges they already face in America.

Expand and Increase SNAP

  • The most meaningful and effective way to help millions of Americans facing food insecurity is to strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), our nation’s most effective defense against hunger.
  • Expanding SNAP access and increasing benefits will ensure that people can get the food they need, with dignity and choice.
  • Extending SNAP benefit boosts will also stimulate the economy and contribute to a swift and broad national recovery. Economists estimate that during a recession, every SNAP dollar generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity.
  • Congress must act immediately to:
    1. Extend SNAP benefit boosts and indefinitely suspend harmful rule changes to help all Americans facing hunger;
    2. Remove barriers to nutrition programs for military families, veterans, and others who face unique challenges to qualifying for assistance;
    3. Ensure that Tribal leaders can adequately respond to food insecurity among their people;
    4. Acknowledge the subtle, yet insidious, racism that has influenced anti-hunger policy and ensure that access, eligibility, and distribution of nutrition benefits are no longer subject to such influences; and
    5. Address the acute needs of older adults, and particularly LGBTQ older adults, including an increase to the minimum SNAP benefit.

Concerns Related to Specific Populations

Veterans

  • Approximately 1.3 million low-income veterans received SNAP benefits, and about 7% of veterans lived in households that received SNAP before the outbreak of COVID-19. For far too long, many veterans have been struggling without the assistance of federal nutrition programs, in part due to stigma, shame, and lack of information. 
  • A recent study showed that among veterans who are eligible for assistance from SNAP, less than one-third currently participate in the program. Additional research shows particularly high rates of food insecurity among post-9/11 veterans and women veterans.
  • The Administration must do more to engage veterans who receive care and services from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), as well as those who do not receive care through the VA system. We must work together to do all we can to connect veterans at risk of food insecurity to available assistance from SNAP.
  • Enrolling eligible veterans in SNAP helps to prevent costly diet-related chronic health conditions and heads off a cycle of economic hardship that can lead to a downward spiral, sometimes tragically resulting in veteran suicide.
  • Particularly in the wake of COVID-19, policymakers must prioritize funding for veteran SNAP outreach and enrollment initiatives. This is a critical element in addressing the nutritional and health needs of all veterans — those within and outside the VA system. We must all work together to increase the capacity of the VA, veteran service organizations, and community partners like MAZON to ensure that no veteran goes hungry.

Military Families

  • Due to a technical error in federal statute, currently serving military families who struggle to put food on the table face unique barriers to accessing both SNAP and child nutrition programs. Sadly, these military families have been quietly struggling for years, often turning to food pantries that operate on or near every military installation in the country — food pantries that are now overrun and overwhelmed because of COVID-19.
  • COVID-19 has intensified challenges and hardships already faced by struggling military families — military spouses are no longer able to work or must reduce hours because of restrictions/closures, families lack access to subsidized school meals for their children, and childcare options are more limited than usual. Furthermore, there is an added strain placed on families of National Guard members who are activated to assist with the pandemic response.
  • Policymakers must prioritize excluding the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) as counted income in determining eligibility and benefits for all federal nutrition assistance programs to ensure that junior enlisted service members with larger households are able to access programs like SNAP. Now more than ever, all military families must be able to access SNAP so that they do not have to turn in desperation to food pantries simply because they cannot get the government assistance they need.

Older Adults and LGBTQ Older Adults

  • We know that many people age into poverty and are in need of government assistance from programs like SNAP and Meals on Wheels. Millions of low-income older adults are also more likely to be adversely affected by COVID-19, and those who struggle with food insecurity have few resources to help them weather a health crisis — particularly one that by its nature requires isolation.
  • MAZON is particularly concerned about protecting LGBTQ older adults, who often face high rates of social isolation, poverty, and lack of access to culturally competent services. MAZON is proud to be the motivating force behind new qualitative research that reveals the persistent challenges and barriers to accessing the charitable food assistance network for this population.
  • At the very least, the Administration must ensure that no person faces discrimination, and that emergency care and relief are delivered based on need — not bias. No one should be turned away from services because of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
  • Policymakers must leverage SNAP so that older adults can put food on the table while remaining safely isolated. This must include encouraging more states to participate in SNAP Online Purchasing, expanding SNAP’s Restaurant Meals Program (RMP), and funding state agencies to reimburse retailers for grocery delivery fees.
  • Policymakers must continue to provide robust funding to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Administration for Community Living for assistance programs, and increase the supply of shelf-stable meals, frozen meals, and other nutrition services. All necessary equipment must be provided to program staff and volunteers to deliver meals safely — this includes masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer.
  • Policymakers must continue to allow flexibility in service models for congregate and home-delivered meals to respond to COVID-19. Service providers must be allowed additional personnel and transportation to accommodate expanded home-delivery of meals as congregate sites are closed to reduce health risks to staff, volunteers, and recipients.
  • Policymakers must provide timely COVID-19 emergency guidance and training for nutrition program staff and volunteers.

Women and Single Mothers

  • Women are particularly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis due to the “feminization of poverty,” a persistent reality playing out every day in communities across the country. Women and particularly single mothers face heightened barriers to food security and economic stability due to a variety of longstanding issues ranging from employment discrimination to caregiving responsibilities to long-term effects of the wage gap.
  • With 40% of single mothers in the U.S. currently struggling to afford food for their families before COVID-19, these women are now facing new pressures to patch together plans to keep their children safe and fed in the wake of school closures, limited childcare options, income loss, and other challenges.
  • We must address the various circumstances and systemic challenges that push millions of low-income women to need the safety net in the first place. These issues are intersectional, and our government’s response must be comprehensive. Any discussion about poverty and food insecurity must acknowledge the realities of working families — particularly households headed by single mothers — including high costs of childcare, lack of paid leave, and limited access to affordable healthcare.

Native Americans

  • Native Americans, especially those residing on rural and remote reservations in Indian Country, face unique challenges in responding to COVID-19, in part due to longstanding and ongoing disparities, which have created economic and health inequities. High rates of unemployment and poverty, limited access to healthcare and fresh and traditional foods, among other barriers have resulted in high rates of food insecurity and diet-related health conditions including obesity and diabetes. With nearly one in four Native American households experiencing food insecurity and underlying health conditions, they are also more vulnerable to COVID-19. 
  • Congress must increase flexibility, access, and funding for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). Robust funding for FDPIR must cover administrative costs, reimbursement of emergency food purchases, and allow Indian Tribal Organizations (ITOs) to procure food locally and regionally.
  • Policymakers must also temporarily allow individuals to receive both SNAP and FDPIR during the same month to account for the increase in participants and food costs during the pandemic, and provide parity and eligibility for tribal governments and ITOs in The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

K-12 Students

  • Nearly 22 million students in the U.S. depend on free or reduced-price school meals as a key source of their daily nutrition. We know that eating regularly and well is a vital prerequisite for keeping children healthy, and during this national health crisis, support to make this possible is critical.
  • As COVID-19 has forced school closures around the country, millions of children are not only missing vital instructional time; many are also losing critically needed breakfast, lunch, and snacks that they usually receive through school nutrition programs.
  • Particularly for children in rural and remote communities, policymakers must utilize every tool at their disposal to ensure that children can access food that they otherwise would be getting at school. This must include waiving the congregate feeding requirement to allow schools to distribute food in any number of settings across all child nutrition programs, and throughout the summer months.
  • At the very least, Congress must extend the Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) program through summer and until schools reopen so that low-income families will not lose out on food assistance their children would be receiving if schools were open.

Rural & Remote Communities

  • Approximately 15% of rural households struggle with food insecurity on a regular basis, and COVID-19 has made the situation much worse. These communities often face challenges including lack of transportation, few grocery stores with healthy food, less opportunity for well-paying jobs, and limited infrastructure.
  • Policymakers must provide additional funding and grant waiver authority to USDA to evaluate and modify the federal nutrition programs and policies to meet the unique needs of rural and remote communities during and beyond COVID-19. This must include approving state plans for emergency SNAP assistance for families with children who lose access to school meals due to school closures, as well as allowing states to increase SNAP benefits for all who need it during the COVID-19 emergency and until the economy can fully recover. This will help families put food on the table and also increase local economic activity.
  • Congress must continue to provide robust funding for TEFAP and the Community Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) for rural emergency food providers as well as relax administrative requirements.
  • Policymakers should continue to expand USDA’s online purchasing pilot program for SNAP to all states so that rural households can use SNAP to purchase food online during times when it is unsafe to do otherwise.

Americans in Puerto Rico

  • Puerto Rico continues to face devastating poverty and food insecurity in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, recent earthquakes, and now the COVID-19 pandemic is making the situation much worse. Furthermore, those in Puerto Rico are denied access to SNAP and must rely on a separate program called the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP), which is extremely limited in scope, structure, and funding.
  • Congress must provide robust funding to fully address nutrition needs in Puerto Rico. While some aid has been approved for Puerto Rico along with American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands, it is far from enough to mitigate the immediate need, let alone to repair the damage created by joblessness and income losses resulting from COVID-19.
  • In the long term, policymakers must address the flawed structure of NAP and move Puerto Rico back to SNAP so that Americans on the island can access adequate benefits and the program can function effectively in response to economic hardship and natural disasters, as SNAP was designed to do. 

Black, Latino, and Other Communities of Color

  • Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey reveals that 40% of Black households, 36% of Latino households, and 22% of white households are facing food insecurity. This means that during COVID-19, Black and Latino families are nearly twice as likely to be facing hunger as white families.
  • This is a staggering statistic, but sadly, Black and other communities of color have always been disproportionately impacted by food insecurity and poverty in the U.S. According to USDA, 21% of all food insecure households in the U.S. were Black households in 2018, although only about 12% of the population was Black. 
  • Higher rates of unemployment and economic hardship among Black and other communities of color lead to exacerbated hunger and poverty. We must also acknowledge and address that communities of color face more significant threats to their health and well-being without adequate access to needed resources. 
  • In our fight to end hunger, we at MAZON commit to confronting the longstanding racism that infects the beliefs, policies, and institutions that limit opportunity, allow discrimination, and perpetuate inequalities.

Click here for a full list of MAZON’s COVID-19 Priorities for Action, in a print-friendly format.

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