COVID Pandemic Exposes Food Insecurity

Economic Shutdown Exposed Weaknesses in Food, Nutrition Chain

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Food insecurity challenges have grown during the COVID-19 pandemic. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The COVID-19 economic shutdown that led to disruptions in the food supply chain may have hit hardest those Americans who already have challenges finding their next meals.

In particular, many Americans face poverty, lack of grocery stores and transportation.

On Friday, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 150 countries and food-security champions celebrated World Food Day to focus on actions to reduce chronic hunger and malnutrition.

USDA's data for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), lags by several months, but in April the number of people on SNAP jumped by about 5.8 million from March to 42.99 million people.

Joni Holifield, founder and president of HeartSmiles in Baltimore, Maryland, said some of the underserved youth she works with are concerned about whether they will eat in any given day, let alone whether they can access healthy foods.

"Yes, COVID has made things even more challenging," she said during a Bipartisan Policy Center virtual panel this week on food insecurity.

"But imagine your normal being kids walking by three liquor stores and an open-air drug market on their daily walk to school, or your nearest grocery store, being 5-plus miles away and you're limited to public transportation or having just a small corner store, literally no bigger than a studio apartment and the freshest thing that you can get to eat is an outdated glazed doughnut.

"So if we're gonna have a serious talk about access to healthy food then we need to start with the conversation around infrastructure and physical barriers that are creating these mental cages, in a sense of lost hope that's only found in poor minority communities in Baltimore and in cities like Baltimore."

HeartSmiles, founded in 2015, helps inner-city youth develop leadership skills and provides needed meals.

John Tyson, chief sustainability officer at Tyson Foods, said COVID led to "mass disruptions" including restaurant closures and food-supply chain failures.

"We've seen where people get their food change," he said. "And in a world that is optimized for efficiency and affordability I think we were exposed to some vulnerabilities in the way our food system is set up."

Tyson said his company took a new approach during the shutdown by pivoting away from supplying food service and restaurants to increasing its footprint in retail settings and food banks.

"But we also know that when you have this mass change in employment status, people's ability to afford food is also impacted," he said.

Tyson said his company expanded investments in a community pantry program.

"This is a universal challenge, small- and medium-sized food banks don't have the infrastructure to take on the mass scale of food that a 40,000-pound trailer from someone like Tyson is able to deliver," he said.

"I think the biggest thing that I would encourage policymakers to do is set aside the partisanship and focus on issues like feeding people that matter to Americans. This is something we can all agree on the farm bill has had great bipartisan support for decades now."


Dan Glickman, former U.S. agriculture secretary and co-chairman of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, task force at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said even before the pandemic many Americans faced difficulty finding good food.

"Even before the pandemic our nation faces severe nutrition-related issues," he said.

Glickman said because of high unemployment rates from the COVID shutdown, an estimated additional 17 million people -- totaling about 55 million Americans -- could experience food insecurity.

"This year, American families have had to turn to food banks and food assistance programs like SNAP and other charitable organizations for the first time ever," he said.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Nebraska, said he's concerned about diminishing health among the nation's youth as a result of the COVID lockdown.

"A lot of our children that weren't able to go to school for months, that was their primary source of fresh fruit, fresh vegetables," he said." The COVID increased the odds of more fast food. There was lost physical fitness, you put all that together, and we took some steps backwards since March in this area."

Congress boosted some food aid in the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. That provided funding for USDA's Farmers to Families Food Boxes, which has spent $4 billion on more than 100 million food boxes delivered to different food banks and pantries around the country. USDA also has provided waivers and extensions to allow schools to provide lunches and breakfasts even if kids are learning virtually.

Bacon said he's asking USDA to extend the summer food services program.

"So, we still needed to have these programs out there that we would have in the summer, because for many for some families, particularly our more-lower economic areas, that was the primary source of food," he said.


Jose Andres, founder of the World Central Kitchen, which provides meals to millions of needy people around the world, said USDA programs that feed the needy in America need more than just funding.

"There are hunger lines in America, and the issue is, if we have all these beautiful programs under the USDA, why do we keep having hunger lines in America?" he asked.

"An NGO (non-governmental organization) like World Central Kitchen that is very small, is doing 350,000 meals a day, somebody is going to have to explain to us what are we not doing right, because it seems we sell a very rosy picture, and I want it to be good, but we need to be more pragmatic. We can be passing the best bills in Congress, but if those policies don't have boots on the ground, making sure that what the bill says is actually happening in real time in every little town in America, let me tell you, we have the bills but those bills are not having the intended effect."

Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit organization working to eradicate poverty-related hunger and undernutrition in the United States, said a study recently completed by his group found not all Americans are sharing the burden in the COVID shutdown.

COVID has disproportionately affected low-wage earners, women, children, and communities of color, he said. Nearly 30 million adults in the U.S. are living with children who often don't have enough to eat.

"These 30 million people are actually changing their meal, their eating patterns, they don't have enough to eat, they're skipping a meal," Guardia said.


Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer at the United Fresh Produce Association, said his organization has tried for years to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

During the pandemic the UFPA has donated about 6,000 salad bars to schools across the country through its United Fresh Start Foundation. Still, he said, many communities continue to face a challenge in finding healthy foods.

"Oh yeah, we're going to get these kids more fresh fruits and vegetables, but that's not necessarily realistic," Stenzel said.

"Those of us sitting here are not going to be able to expect somebody who's hungry to always make that choice."

Stenzel said more than a decade ago Congress added a cash voucher to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, or WIC, for fresh fruits and vegetables.

"When stores were able to have customers, who came with dollars in their pocket from that WIC allotment, and they were targeted to fruits and vegetables," he said, "it made a huge difference. What can we do on SNAP requirements for corner stores, convenience stores to carry an array of different fresh fruits and vegetables, different commodities so they don't just get that stale glazed doughnut?"

Holifield said the youth HeartSmiles serves are driven to be successful and make good decisions about their futures.

It can't happen without healthy food, she said.

"We stumbled across that we wanted to teach kids about leadership and entrepreneurship, but then we saw that they were coming hungry and you couldn't even start the conversation without first providing them with something to eat," Holifield said.

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Todd Neeley