We Need To Talk About Food Insecurity During COVID

Food Banks Are Getting Slammed With Need, But Not With Support

Healthy Waltham
Erin Clark for The Boston Globe/Getty

Five years ago, I stood alongside a group of volunteers at a soup kitchen serving food to people in need just one town over from my own. There were men and women, children and teenagers, and people of all races and economic backgrounds waiting to be served a hot meal, buffet-style.

It was there, in that line of volunteers who would go home to a warm place to lay their heads and food in their fridge, that I was reminded of how lucky I was. I was humbled by the experience of helping someone who needed something as basic as a hot meal, something I’d taken for granted until I stood on the other side of that table. There I was, scooping spoonfuls of mashed potatoes or some extravagant dish cooked up by the in-house chef, to people who smiled back at me, grateful to take a seat at a table with familiar faces. Faces they saw each week, people they’d grown to know because each week, we showed up to serve the meal or receive the meal.

Today the issue of food insecurity has gotten worse. We often think of food insecurity as a third-world problem, not something people are experiencing right next door, right here in America. But they are. COVID-19 has forced businesses to lay people off, overflowing federal agencies with requests for unemployment claims. In September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,  the U.S. unemployment rate was 7.9%, or roughly 12.6 million people; over 500,000 people were unemployed in New York City alone. That’s not accounting for those that are underemployed, unable to find full-time jobs, and work part-time roles to try to survive, to put food on the table. COVID-19 is making it harder and harder for people to survive, diminishing their ability to put food on the table for their families.

Karen Ducey/Getty

Food insecurity is not a new problem in America, but it is one we are paying more attention to because of the vast number of individuals who are going to food banks and asking for food because they just don’t have any other options during this pandemic. A New York City-based nonprofit called City Harvest, whose mission is to help those who are experiencing food insecurity by way of soup kitchens, food pantries, and other community partners, saw a 95% increase from the previous year in the amount of food they distributed since the pandemic began in March. Their tagline is, “City Harvest is committed to feeding all of our neighbors—one meal, one day, one New Yorker at a time.” And that is all we can do, as a community of struggling families — take one day at a time. Thankfully, there are many community agencies ready and willing to help, but they too are exhausted by the vast amount of requests.

Could you imagine not knowing where your next meal might come from? Can you imagine searching all day to find a food pantry to get just one meal from, one that still has food on the shelves to offer? Now, can you imagine doing that with your kids in tow? City Harvest shares, “The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crash that followed have made New York City’s hunger crisis even worse. Food insecurity is expected to rise 38 percent citywide in 2020—and 49 percent among children, according to Feeding America. But hunger doesn’t fall equally across the city. It hits particularly hard in the communities of color that have been disproportionately harmed by decades of policy inequities and systemic failures.”

Erin Clark for The Boston Globe/Getty

1 in 4 children in New York City are experiencing food insecurity, which is almost a 50% increase from pre-COVID-19. In New York City, there are over 1.5 million people currently experiencing food insecurity, a 38% increase over last year’s data as reported by City Harvest. Plentiful, an app that schedules appointments at soup kitchens and food pantries for those in need, saw a 50% increase between March and October with over 250,000 people scheduling appointments in that timeframe. 

And that’s just New York City — think about the rest of America. Houston has been hit particularly hard; the Houston Food Bank, the largest in the nation, distributed 45% more food in October 2020 than in October 2019. Catherine D’Amato, president of Greater Boston Food Bank, told The Washington Post, “We’re doing more in a month than we did in a year 20 years ago. Food insecurity has gone from 1 in 13 people to 1 in 8 in Eastern Massachusetts, even higher for families with children.” Smaller food banks, especially in rural areas, are struggling to keep up with the demand. And thanks to the effects of the pandemic, there are fewer donations and fewer volunteers to fill the growing need.

What we know about the Trump Administration is that they are unable to respond appropriately to just about anything, but especially how they’ve handled the pandemic. Another issue that comes to the surface when we talk about food insecurity is the issue of systemic racism. There are millions standing in line to receive food, or struggling to receive food stamps from an overextended government agency such as the Department of Social Services, and they are often people of color. They are those working part-time jobs in the service industries like retail, education, health care, and hospitality, shedding even more light onto the issue of systemic racism in America. Black and Latinx staff members are more likely to be underemployed in the industries I’ve mentioned, twice as likely to be underemployed than their white counterparts, and are often women.

While we cannot ignore that race plays a role in the number of people who are going hungry in America, it is not the only reason. Food insecurity during COVID-19 forces conversations around what’s always existed in America: poverty. That is what we are talking about when we discuss food insecurity. People must choose between paying the rent, paying for lights and heat, or choosing to go to the grocery store to put food on the table. How do you choose between any of those?

What we do know is that the people standing in line to receive their meal or groceries for the week don’t want to be there, but they have no other choice. I don’t have any answers as to where we can go as a nation. I do know how I can help in my own house, with my own family, to help a neighbor. We can donate our non-perishables, we can give a gift card or a few dollars to someone asking for a meal on the street, and we can advocate and support nonprofits like City Harvest, who is working to feed Americans — or organizations like Workers Justice Center, working to help low-wage workers. We can donate our time and our money to people and causes who are helping right now. We can never lose sight that it could one day be us scheduling an appointment via Plentiful to receive a hot meal or pick up a bag of groceries to feed our family. More than 50 million Americans, or one in six people, are projected to experience food insecurity by year’s end. These aren’t just people from big cities; these are people we know, in our own backyards.

If COVID-19 has taught us nothing else, it has taught us this: we are not immune from getting COVID-19, from infecting those we love, or from losing our jobs. We are indeed all in this together. 

To find a food bank in your area to donate, volunteer, or receive services, click here.