Crisis at a Crossroads: Solutions for Tackling Hunger in America (Ms. Magazine)

Abby J. Leibman and Liza Lieberman
February 19, 2021

This article was originally posted in Ms. Magazine:

For those of us in the anti-hunger community, every day we live and breathe the reality that millions of people cannot to feed themselves and their families. But this year has been different. This year, all Americans have witnessed and too many of us have experienced what it means to be hungry in this country.

Over eleven months since we first started to understand the devastating gravity of COVID-19, it is abundantly clear that this has never been a single health crisis. It is and has always been many crises at once, each intersecting with and impacting each other. The pandemic has revealed and deepened the longstanding and systemic vulnerabilities and inequities across America—including hunger.

Hunger in the Headlines

In March 2020, the pandemic started to reveal just how many people are struggling to feed their families and how perilously close millions of Americans are living to the edge of poverty. If you had food on the table but were barely getting by, suddenly putting food on the table became at once all you could think about and almost all you could manage. If it was already hard to put food on the table, it suddenly became nearly impossible.

Many people found themselves turning to food pantries for the first time. Cars lined up for miles on highways as distribution centers did their best to keep up with staggering levels of need. The shocking irony of grocery store workers or restaurant owners going hungry became painfully symbolic of the hardships now faced by individuals, families and whole communities across the country. The most vulnerable in our country were, as always, among the hardest hit, and almost a year later, most of this is still true.

The Trump administration left local governments or private charities to catch whoever fell through the cracks with little or no help from the federal government.

Biden Administration Responding to Hunger Crisis With Urgency

Thankfully, the new Biden administration has responded with the urgency, wisdom, and compassion that this moment warrants. President Biden has already taken several critical steps to address the situation, which reflect the complexity of hunger in America, the unique and often overlooked barriers to assistance, and the essential role the federal government must play in responding to hunger.

In the last few weeks, the new administration has taken executive action to increase food assistance benefits, recognize the impact of hunger on essential workers (whose ranks are dominated by women and immigrants), and demonstrated an understanding that hunger in America demands solutions that recognize the complexity of the challenges faced by millions.

Working Together to FEED People

While Republican gridlock in Congress has exacerbated and prolonged the hunger crisis, the parties finally came together in December to pass a stimulus package to help families across the country. The bill provided a benefit boost for those who receive SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) through June—a welcome step that provides essential across-the-board relief to all those who qualify.

We at MAZON are encouraged by such long overdue actions and even more so by the energy in Congress and the administration to begin to advance some positive, and even creative, policy solutions.

Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers re-introduced potentially game-changing legislation for millions by making it easier for food producers, restaurants, and nonprofits to partner with state and local governments to address food insecurity. Should it become law, the FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries (FEED) Act will cover 100 percent of the cost when local and state governments partner with restaurants and nonprofits to provide meals for vulnerable populations—a much-needed increase from the 75 percent that FEMA has been legally allowed to cover until now.

The FEED Act represents the best kind of creative thinking so desperately needed right now, crossing partisan barriers to feed people who are hungry, uplifting struggling businesses and supporting state and local governments that have been hard-hit by the pandemic’s devastating impact on tax revenues. Government action of this sort—programs, policies and legislation that recognize the complex web of individual vulnerability, shared crises and the broader economy—is, frankly, the only thing that will ever successfully end hunger, not just in this challenging moment but also once we emerge from the pandemic.

We are also pleased that last week, congressional committees started to flesh out details for the American Rescue Plan, which will extend the 15 percent SNAP benefit boosts for an additional three months, through September. It will also boost benefits for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), expand SNAP online purchasing options and extend the Pandemic-EBT program to help families whose children would be receiving free or reduced-price meals in schools. Importantly, it will also provide additional support for Americans in Puerto Rico—an advocacy priority for MAZON, given the island’s long history of severe poverty and food insecurity, and federal policymakers’ tendency to overlook clear policy solutions.

Setting the Table for Long-Term Solutions

These measures are critical, but we know that nearly 40 million Americans faced hunger before the pandemic, and millions will surely continue to struggle even as the country begins its recovery. Not only must Congress extend these benefit boosts for as long as necessary, but it can no longer ignore the realities of peoples’ lives.

The pandemic exposed and worsened the deepest cracks in the foundation of our nation, but the truth is that we have been on faulty ground for decades and for generations. Systemic racism continues to limit opportunities and compound discrimination and hardship for Black and other communities of color. Sexism continues to reinforce the feminization of poverty. The legacy of colonization and conquest has left profound wounds on indigenous communities, which endure to this day. Advocates and government actors must work together to confront harsh realities and work towards change.

At MAZON, we know that too many communities and populations have been underserved by our federal response to hunger. Among them: Tribal Nations, military families, single mothers, veterans and LGBTQ seniors. We have made it our priority to lift up those communities to policymakers and propose solutions to persistent barriers they face in securing food assistance.

We must never be complacent with short term fixes, broken promises or overlooked crises. MAZON’s vision is that we all continue to fight for long term, justice-centered, meaningful policy change until no one faces hunger in America.