Food Insecurity Didn’t Start With COVID—But It’s Time to End It

Ms. Magazine
May 29, 2020

Click here to read the article as published in Ms. Magazine. 

The U.S. is facing a dangerous reality of food scarcity in America during, and largely due to, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thirty to 40 percent of individuals now visiting their local food banks have never been to one before, and demand for these local banks has soared to roughly seven or eight times higher than average. Most are not equipped to handle this influx.

To talk policies and solutions on how to alleviate the pressure coronavirus is placing on families and food banks alike, Congressman Adam Schiff joined a May 19 webinar hosted by MAZON: a Jewish Response to Hunger and streamed by Ms.—because, as Schiff noted, “The problem of food insecurity did not start with the pandemic.”

The event’s host Abby Liebman, president and CEO of MAZON, opened the discussion explaining how the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) “is the lifeblood of the nutrition safety net in this country”—but unfortunately, the Trump administration has relentlessly issued attacks to undermine SNAP.

According to Schiff, new Congressional programming attempts to tackle the food scarcity crisis, whereby the federal government could buy the excess food from farmers and supply the food banks with the salvaged food—but this plan is not sufficient to handle the magnitude of the crisis.

Food banks lack the capacity to serve this many people, firms being contracted have “no experience in the food chain supply.” Instead, Schiff argued, the U.S. should turn to programs like SNAP that work very well and can be expanded with the HEROES Act.

By working with infrastructure already in place—such as SNAP—the U.S. can improve programs for future use, empower individuals to go to their local grocery stores, support local businesses by expanding local food options and get past some of the stigma surrounding who is benefiting from these programs because “the need is so great.”

Judge Margaret Morrow, panelist and distinguished judge, also affirmed belief in reviving SNAP by noting that when it comes to the DPSS, “SNAP is one of the main benefits that clientele need to be able to access.”

Morrow also stressed the importance of helping individuals fill out their forms to verify eligibility and the value of receiving government-funded nutrition benefits.

According to Morrow, “there are way more people who need access to these benefits than ever before”—yet there is a stigma that comes along with exposing finances that fuels fear and shame for applying.

While hunger is an issue that can impact anyone, “a significant amount of college students are food insecure,” said Schiff. Morrow elaborated that with college students, it is extremely difficult for them to qualify for SNAP programs, yet 39 percent of undergraduate students are at risk for hunger and inadequate housing.

On the importance of addressing hunger in students, Marissa De La Torre, another panelist, highlighted her work with the Lancer Pantry, a Pasadena-based program that’s been helping students, and the larger community, address food insecurity at home for over three years.

Before the pandemic, De La Torre said Lancer Pantry was moving about 6,000 pounds of food per month; now, in light of COVID, they’ve had to move to remote services with Pasadena City College. De La Torre anticipates reaching 1,000 students this week alone and advocates for the importance of assisting with applications and the need for destigmatization when it comes to hunger.

De La Torre continued to bring the focus to the importance of “advocating for our students” because the U.S. cannot afford to have barriers like hunger in the way for our children.

Towards the end of the panel, a viewer was asked about the heartbreaking reality of seeing so much food being wasted in a country with immense amounts of ingenuity. In response, Schiff reiterated that the U.S. must “use the system that we have” and that “there is no escaping responsibility and accountability” when it comes to needed government leadership.

This echoes an earlier point from Marrow about the relation between the government and the charitable nature of that response. She also reiterated we “don’t have time to construct new methodologies” when the food supply chain is so complex. Instead, we must rely on what we have in place: SNAP.

In closing, Liebman noted, “Stabilizing our economy will not happen until people are secure.”

Watch the whole conversation here: