As schools close and workers across the country are laid off due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, outbreak, many of the most vulnerable populations in the United States face stressors that extend beyond the immediate health concerns spurred by the global pandemic.
Across the country, students who rely on free or subsidized lunches could have their access to steady meals compromised by the extended school closures. Tens of thousands of laid-off workers have filed for unemployment insurance in the past week, and the number of jobless Americans surpassed levels not seen since the Great Recession.
Organizations that already care for vulnerable populations, such as homeless shelters and nursing homes, have struggled to keep facilities clean and enforce practices such as social distancing to quell the rapid spread of the virus. The U.S. has more than 54,000 cases and 737 deaths so far from COVID-19, as of March 25.
The Trump administration and lawmakers in Congress negotiated a nearly $2 trillion economic rescue bill that will provide direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and grant federal loans to small businesses so that they can keep workers on the payroll during the outbreak. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill later on Wednesday.
Lara Shore-Sheppard, an economics professor at Williams College, stressed that the virus is so widespread that the onus has fallen on the Trump administration and Congress to pass legislation that will affect long-term, tangible change within these vulnerable communities in the U.S. Indeed, this is the largest economic rescue bill in history.
“When it’s such a large-scale problem, it’s not the kind of thing that individual generosity will be able to solve,” said Shore-Sheppard. “It does need to come from the centralized government.”
Nevertheless, communities are stepping up to offer assistance to those in need right now, in an effort to fill the gaps. Here are a few ways you can help, too.
Donate to, volunteer at your local food bank
Due to panic surrounding the virus, donations to many local food banks are down significantly. This is the case in Washington state, where dozens have already died from the virus, and states like Ohio, where food banks have seen volunteers cancel shifts. Supermarket chain Harris Teeter on Friday said that key items in its stores may be out of stock due to high customer demand, and some food banks in Washington state have reported that people have come to their facilities for the first time because their regular grocery stores don’t have what they’re looking for.
Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, suggested donating to “food pantries and other locations designed to provide emergency access to families with food insecurity.”
Organizations like Feeding America allow you to search for food banks in your area. Many food banks across the U.S. are now putting their resources toward dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak directly. In Tennessee, for example, the Mid-South Food bank is assembling boxes of nonperishable food for those in quarantine, and others will accept donations online.
Additionally, if organizations that you are a part of have to cancel their events last-minute due to COVID-19, consider donating any meals that would otherwise go to waste. Nancy Clack, who is on the board of the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, said her organization donated food from its three-day conference in D.C. to Nourish Now after the event was canceled due to the virus.
Find ways to help feed students who depend on school lunches
As of Friday afternoon, a number of states had announced plans to shut down all K-12 schools for at least a week due to the COVID-19 outbreak, including Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Michigan and West Virginia, as well as major urban school districts such as Atlanta, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
When schools close, many students who rely on subsidized lunches or special education programs suffer, said Pallas. “The sad fact is that our society relies on schools so heavily to provide basic services to kids,” he said of the U.S., where millions of students receive free or reduced lunch. “The closure of those schools really puts families and communities at risk.” This goes for working parents, as well, many whom may have to stay home with their children during school closures.
In cities such as Washington, officials have said they will provide meals to students at off-site locations. Consider contacting your local public school district about helping with preparation or distribution. Additionally, look into independently organized fundraising efforts such as this one in Arlington County, Virginia, which is raising money to purchase grocery cards for families that rely on free or reduced lunch.
Think about other resources that students may be missing if they’re asked to stay home from school, too: In Ohio, for example, the Center for Investigative Journalism is currently documenting locations around the state where students can access free WiFi. This is necessary for many students whose school systems are engaging in distance learning during this time, but who do not have stable internet access at home.
Support small businesses that employ low-wage workers
Businesses across the U.S. rely on low-wage workers, and these employees often don’t receive paid sick leave or health care. In the food service industry alone, 7 million workers do not receive paid sick days. Service workers employed at grocery stores or cleaning services are often at the front lines of the public health response to pandemics like COVID-19, as Amanda Mull recently noted in The Atlantic. Experts have predicted that low-wage workers could be the first to suffer from a COVID-related economic downturn, as businesses in sectors such as the service industry begin to shut down.
“Low-wage workers are definitely going to be coping with some pretty significant challenges, especially since they typically have fairly low savings and there’s not a lot of flexibility,” said Lara Shore-Sheppard.
If you do go out to restaurants or cafes during the outbreak, remember to tip your servers well: As D.C. food writer Laura Hayes recently wrote, the profits restaurants make off their food is usually very slim, so consider tipping generously if you can. If you can’t go out to support small businesses, consider purchasing gift cards instead, to be used some other time in the next few months. Finally, if you know of businesses that are hiring, share any jobs with people who may lose work during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Collaborate with neighbors to check in on the most vulnerable in your community
As communities work to contain the spread of COVID-19, check in with neighbors that are part of the most vulnerable members of your community, such as the elderly or homeless. Even volunteering to do simple tasks — such as grocery shopping, sharing child care or helping out with errands — can go a long way for those who may be in quarantine or have a compromised immune system. Consider starting a shared Google document or spreadsheet so that neighbors who are able to chip in can share their contact information or availability. And if there are organizations in your neighborhood that are likely to be strained by the pandemic, such as homeless shelters, donate to those as well.
As the Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce recently tweeted, self-quarantine and isolation can feel ominous, but it can also be viewed as “an amazing act of social solidarity: We’re sacrificing so we can give nurses, doctors and hospitals a fighting chance.” So amid the chaos and closures, try not to lose sight of the broader goal of these preventative actions and small favors.