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1 in 10 Americans don’t have enough food. The pandemic is making things worse

Tens of millions of Americans were already wrestling with having enough food to eat before the coronavirus came along. Enter a pandemic that launched an historic recession and experts say that need has only grown.

For three years, Jennifer Lawrence has volunteered at the food bank at St. Luke Methodist Church in Tupelo, Mississippi. People who come to her are scared, not only about having enough food but also how they’re going to make it from one day to the next in the middle of COVID-19, she said. One woman in her 70s is now raising her grandchildren after her own child died, Lawrence said.

“Some of them are at their wit’s end,” she said, adding that her clients tell her, “‘I don’t know how I’m going to make it. I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills.’”

Data is starting to catch up to the real-life fallout of dueling health and economic crises, and shows that households of color and those with less income are disproportionately affected so far. In late August, about one in 10 Americans said they did not have enough food in the last seven days, according to new survey data from the Census Bureau out this week. But mounting data suggests those numbers are going up. The Census data also revealed rising in food insufficiency among children over the summer, from 16.8 percent in mid-June to 19.9 percent by mid-July.

Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

In New York City and Los Angeles, roughly one-fifth of residents said over the course of July that they had serious difficulty getting enough food to eat. In Houston, a third of respondents had trouble affording food, according to a poll from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NPR and Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health

And a slew of COVID-19 relief packages — from unemployment assistance to housing protection — are set to expire by the end of September, weeks ahead of the 2020 presidential election, leaving millions of people vulnerable to worse economic and health outcomes.

Food is one of the first costs people skimp on to try and stay afloat amid turbulent financial straits, and one of the last basic needs to recover once a crisis eases. What someone spends on food “is something that is elastic, as opposed to — your rent is your rent,” said Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

That deprivation can have lasting effects — trouble getting enough food to eat can lay the foundation for chronic illness and reduced health outcomes later in life.

The PBS NewsHour asked health and social safety net experts where the United States stands on food insecurity, who is being hit hardest and what would help people get enough to eat during this crisis.

How we got here

Late last year, before the global rise of COVID-19, one out of 10 U.S. households was food insecure, according to a report published this week from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That amounts to an estimated 35.2 million people, said Alisha Coleman-Jensen, a USDA social science analyst who studies nutrition assistance.

More than half of those households — 58 percent — participated in at least one of the nation’s largest federal nutrition programs, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and the National School Lunch Program.

Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

Rising unemployment and inflation of food prices are often linked to the number of food-insecure households, Coleman-Jensen said. However, “most food-insecure households are actually employed,” either full-time or part-time, suggesting people’s paychecks don’t go far enough to cover the cost of food, she said during a webinar highlighting the latest USDA report’s findings.

These numbers are comparable to what the Census Bureau found when it asked Americans if they had enough food during the last seven days. For months, the bureau has inquired how households are coping during the pandemic with questions about job status, housing, food, health care and more.

But the way that question is framed could gloss over the realities of food insecurity, which tends to be episodic during the course of a month, Waxman said. People may be fine once they get money or assistance on the first of the month, but by the end of the month, their cash reserves or resources may have dried up. That’s why polls often ask if people have experienced hunger or food insecurity over the last 30 days.

For many in the U.S., financial stability has grown more tenuous in the months since the pandemic began, and could get more dire. With the latest GOP Senate coronavirus relief bill scuttled on Thursday, essentially diminishing hopes of any aid coming before the November election, and federal COVID-19 unemployment insurance set to expire after Dec. 31, more people are struggling to figure out how they will pay rent and eat, Waxman said. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention placed a federal moratorium on evictions, people are still worried about how they are going to make ends meet. Back in Tupelo, Lawrence said clients come to her and say they don’t know how they can afford rent.

In a year full of examples of the ways systemic racism manifests in all aspects of life, from COVID-19 outcomes to police brutality, food insecurity has also weighed more heavily on Black and brown households than white ones, said Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The health care policy organization, along with partners, surveyed 3,454 Americans between July 1 and Aug. 3 in the nation’s four largest cities — New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston — to see how vulnerable people’s lives and livelihoods have become amid the pandemic. The report detailed how problems were concentrated among Black and Latino households and households with incomes less than $100,000 per year in cities that report some of the nation’s highest cost-of-living. At least half of respondents in each city reported serious financial problems, including trouble paying bills, especially due to medical costs or credit card debt, and fleeced savings.

“Food security is really a basic and fundamental need, and we shouldn’t be experiencing these kinds of problems,” Morita said.

On the ground

After COVID-19 surged in places like New York City and California, it settled into rural pockets of the country over the summer, searing states like Mississippi with some of the country’s worst positivity rates, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. By July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Mississippians still suffered among the higher unemployment rates in the country with 10.8 percent of the labor force out of work. And like much of the rest of the country, a disproportionate number of Black Mississippians died after they were infected with the virus, compared to white Mississippians, according to the state department of public health.

Things got so bad that Republican Gov. Tate Reeves finally issued a statewide face mask mandate on Aug. 4, but stopped short of postponing the start of in-person school days later for thousands of Mississippi children, teachers and staff. Less than a month after classes began, the Mississippi Free Press reported on Aug. 25 that thousands were ordered to stay out of classrooms after hundreds of COVID-19 tests confirmed positive cases in the state’s school system. In the 2019-2020 school year, the USDA said about 357,000 children in Mississippi were qualified to be fed through the National School Lunch Program. That translates to nearly three-quarters of all children in the state’s participating schools.

Mississippi households reported the nation’s highest rates of food insecurity at 15.7 percent late last year, according to the latest USDA data. Since then, Jason Martin has already seen a spike in need at the food pantries he oversees in Northeast Mississippi. As executive director for the Tupelo/Lee County Hunger Coalition, Martin said older residents, who are at greater risk for suffering worse outcomes if infected with COVID-19, fear coming to the pantries to pick up food. At the same time, hundreds of new households are flocking to the food bank because so many people have lost their jobs or been furloughed.

“The numbers we’re serving now are the most numbers we’ve served in the history of the pantry,” Martin said. He said while the pantry typically restricts people to one visit per month, Martin said he has seen an uptick in people who run out and need more food sooner.

Around the nation, more than four out of 10 people who sought help from food pantries were new and needed services as a result of COVID-19, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit network of more than 200 food banks. Based on what he has seen, Martin said he doesn’t expect food pantry demand to return to pre-pandemic numbers “until 2021, until a vaccine is widely available. You’ve got to see that widely available to the community before things start stabilizing.”

What’s next?

Waxman said she foresees “a real uptick in food insecurity and need” for months, if not years. It took Americans a decade to recover from food insecurity brought on by the Great Recession, she said.

The U.S. didn’t enter this coronavirus-fueled recession completely unprepared. During the 2008 financial crisis, lessons were learned that gave policymakers evidence-based tools and strategies to make sure more Americans get enough nutritious food to eat, she said.

One tool they used to stem widespread hunger in the U.S. was boosting food stamp benefits across the board, Waxman said. That gave more food to more people when they needed it, and research supports this tactic for avoiding hunger. That’s why it was included in the HEROES Act, Waxman said, but that coronavirus relief package, which was introduced by House Democrats in May, has sat in Congress.

Research shows that cash infusions, such as the extended $600 payments that went out under the CARES Act passed in March, are vital in keeping American households financially afloat and fed, Waxman said. During the Great Recession, individuals received more than $420 billion in stimulus payments, which helped keep households afloat and prevent further job loss, the Hamilton Project reported.

To fix holes in the social safety net, Waxman urged lawmakers to be more consistent with aid. So far in the crisis, the U.S. has adopted a series of policies that weren’t renewed. One example, she said, was authorizing pandemic EBT, or a special debit card used to redeem food benefits, under the CARES Act, which replaced free or reduced price school meals for children who couldn’t return to the classroom because of COVID-19 and would miss free-or-reduced price breakfast and lunch. This benefit is set to expire on Sept. 30. According to the USDA, roughly 30 million children rely on the National School Lunch Program. But because the U.S. has created a patchwork of state, local and federal responses to a global pandemic, more households are falling through the cracks, Waxman said.

“Part of the problem is we’ve had a lot of starting and stopping,” she said. “That makes it really hard for people or states or schools or anybody else to plan.”

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