National Nutrition Month Ushers in a Hopeful New Chapter

Marla Feldman
March 17, 2021

This month, National Nutrition Month coincides with the one-year milestone of the first COVID-19 lockdowns. Many of us are reflecting on the uncertainty of that time when we were unaware of the extent of the pervasive, pernicious nature of this raging pandemic. For the last year, our country has been severely tested by the public health and economic crisis — including staggering rates of hunger.

This year we have seen millions of Americans line up in cars, waiting for food that, even combined with nutrition benefits, barely lasts them a month. Now, more than ever, we must ensure and improve access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food for those seeking assistance through federal nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), our country’s most important tool in fighting hunger.

While communities across the country have been affected by COVID-19, low-income, Black, Latino, Indigenous, and other communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the virus and its widespread repercussions. Age-old structurally racist policies have led to disparate impacts, perpetuating limited access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food in communities of color. As a result, the risks of chronic diet-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are higher in these communities. According to the CDC, these pre-existing conditions impact the severity of the illness caused by the coronavirus by further complicating recovery and, in 20% of cases, lead to death. The health disparities exacerbated by COVID-19 are unconscionable. Healthy food is imperative for a healthy life and we all have an inherent right to a healthy life, no matter our race or zip code.

For many years, MAZON has been a leader in advancing the food bank movement towards healthier options, as well as decreasing less nutritious offerings; A Tipping Point, MAZON’s 2018 report analyzing and advocating for the quality of food in food banks, demonstrated the need for action. Over the past several years, food banks have made significant progress shifting their organizational practices to prioritize nutrition and the health of those they serve. But we also know that the charitable food system was never intended to be the solution to hunger, nor was it intended as a regular source of supplemental nutrition. Most people who visit food pantries do so only after depleting SNAP dollars and stretching their limited monthly budgets. Unfortunately, nutritional quality is often compromised when a family’s budget is stretched too thin and SNAP dollars are insufficient.

Studies show that current SNAP benefit levels are often insufficient to afford a healthy diet, in large part due to a flawed, tiered system of four food plans that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses to determine allotment levels. Despite years of anti-hunger advocacy, the Thrifty Food Plan, the lowest cost plan, has not been updated since 2006, and yet is still used to determine SNAP benefit levels. Updates to these plans are long overdue and vitally important. SNAP is not only an anti-hunger program, but also an anti-poverty program; in 2019, SNAP lifted 2.5 million people out of poverty. The Biden administration has demonstrated an appetite to review these plans, and we are hopeful that updates would make a critical difference to better align benefits with today’s cost of living.

As we begin year two of the pandemic, tens of millions of Americans face hunger and hardship. We at MAZON are gratified that the Biden administration’s newly-signed American Rescue Plan provides immediate relief to millions of Americans who are struggling by extending the 15% SNAP benefit boost through September, and expanding important programs like WIC and P-EBT. It has been encouraging to see the new administration centering policies to address hunger in its economic relief and recovery plans, and we are hopeful that USDA will take a serious look at instituting universal school meals.

MAZON honors National Nutrition Month with a recommitment to our central Jewish values of pursuing justice and honoring the dignity of every person. We have an opportunity to use this moment for transformational changes, urging legislators at all levels of government to prioritize racial justice, equity, and inclusion in policies that create long-lasting impact. Building a stronger social safety net and addressing the root causes of hunger by updating the USDA’s food plans and increasing SNAP benefits will create lasting change beyond the pandemic. Only then will we begin to repair our nation’s extreme health, wealth, and income disparities and create a future where all can thrive. We hope you will join us towards this goal by supporting our fight to end hunger and taking action today.