Ms. Magazine Blog Post: Coronavirus, Women and Hunger—An Overlooked Intersection

Abby J. Leibman and Liza Lieberman
March 12, 2020

Originally posted in Ms. Magazine, March 12, 2020

Many of us are stunned by the coronavirus outbreak, unsure exactly what to do or how to proceed. Should we stockpile food? Work remotely from the couch? Cancel weekend plans?

But, what if you don’t have enough money to feed your family in the first place? What if you can’t afford not to show up for work? What if you work in the service industry, where you can’t just work remotely? What if your community is still struggling to recover from the last financial crisis, and you have been out of work for months or years? What if your children’s school closes and they don’t have access to their usual free or reduced-price meals?

These are questions facing millions of low-income Americans—and particularly women—as we face growing uncertainty and tumult.

Urgent Need for Thoughtful Policy Responses

We know that women will be particularly impacted by the coronavirus crisis because the feminization of poverty is a persistent reality playing out every day in communities across the country. Even on a good day, women 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 a stunning 40% of single mothers in the U.S. currently struggling to afford food for their families, these women are now facing new pressures to patch together plans to keep their children safe and fed in the wake of school closures.

So far, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue has said that “If schools are closed, we are going to do our very best to make sure kids are fed.” However, currently, USDA will only grant flexibility for areas where the majority of children receive free or reduced-price lunch. In the face of a pandemic, this is unacceptable. No child should be going without food because their school is closed. To address this, several Members of Congress have introduced bills to encourage broader use of USDA’s waiver authority so more children and families can get the nutrition assistance they need. Several of these proposals were included in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201), which also provides additional funds for nutrition assistance programs for women, infants, and children (WIC) as well as home-delivered services for seniors and other programs.

While this is a vital initial proposal, many questions remain about whether this legislation will be voted on by both chambers and whether the President will actually sign it into law.

Harsh Realities of Women Facing Food Insecurity

The reality is that women struggle with food insecurity for a variety of reasons. Our lives are laced with complex intersections, and it would be myopic to suggest that the only answer to help women and their children thrive is to shore up the nutrition safety net. We must also address the various circumstances and systemic challenges that push millions of low-income women to need the safety net in the first place. The issues are intersectional, and our government’s response must be comprehensive. Even among anti-hunger advocates, we know that any discussion about poverty must acknowledge the realities of working families, particularly single parent households, including high costs of childcare, lack of paid sick leave, and limited access to affordable healthcare.

As colleges and universities across the nation close, far too many students will find themselves without adequate resources to access nutritious food. Students affected by college and university closures are not exclusively teenagers who live in dorms and can go stay with their parents for a few weeks. They are also student mothers who are trying to keep a semblance of normalcy for their children. They are women who support their families—parents, children, and others—while trying to keep up with their studies. These women might regularly visit the campus food pantry just to make sure they stay awake in class. These students need consistent access to affordable food during this crisis, and we must do more to connect them to resources that can help.

Furthermore, we know that as women get older, they are more likely to age into poverty and become newly poor, often in need of government resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other federal nutrition benefits. They are also more likely to be adversely affected by the COVID-19 virus and have few resources to help them weather a health crisis—particularly one that by its nature requires them to be even more isolated. Older women living in rural or remote communities often live alone, without family support, where their vulnerability to illness could intensify with unique barriers to food security.

Charity is Not the (Only) Answer

Sadly, women living in or near poverty are often overlooked by policymakers, as we have seen this week with the Trump Administration prioritizing the needs of businesses over low-income families in its coronavirus response. Consistent with this Administration’s hateful attempts to restrict SNAP and other federal assistance programs, there seems to be a mythology that the charitable sector can meet the needs of millions of hungry families.

Let’s dispel that myth right now: charity alone cannot meet the needs of Americans facing hunger. This has never been more true than now.

Nearly 40 million Americans struggle to put food on the table on a regular basis, and the coronavirus has real potential to exacerbate their struggles. While some community-based service providers are exploring tactics like grab-and-go food packages, they will not be able to address the full scope of this problem. A democratic society must provide for the needs of those unable to provide for themselves. Charitable organizations will continue to play a vital role in addressing hunger and poverty, but we know that the overwhelming majority of food assistance in this country has historically come from—and must continue to come from—federal programs.

Our safety net was created for moments like this. So let’s come together to expand benefits and flexibility to meet the needs of low-income women and their families. Regardless of a person’s circumstance, nobody deserves to be hungry.

Abby J. Leibman is President & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and Co-Founder of the California Women’s Law Center. Liza Lieberman is MAZON’s Director of Public Policy. Inspired by Jewish values and ideals, MAZON is a national advocacy organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel. MAZON’s attention to the unaddressed nuances in food policy has led us to identify marginalized communities that have fallen through the cracks including single mothers, military families and veterans, Native Americans, seniors, college students, and people living in rural or remote communities.