Without Food Access, Not a Drop Can Go to Waste
At 10 years as a dietitian standing up for the rights of those suffering from food insecurity, poverty, and economic injustice, I learned one of the biggest lessons of my career. It came during a recipe testing at a food pantry. Guests made something I dreamt up, a jelly barbeque sandwich. The recipe cooked quick, had few ingredients, and who doesn’t like barbeque!?
But one of our participants disagreed, gentle-voiced and dignified. She dropped her cooking utensils, “Jelly is expensive.” She was looking straight at me. She recently became a single mom of four after losing her husband to a brain tumor. She now worked two jobs and moved into a mobile home with room for the kids, a couch, sleeping quarters and little else. She knew exactly how her jelly would be used – as a part of a PB & J. This condiment would NOT be caught in an unfamiliar dish that her family might not eat. She worried constantly about getting children kids enough food, on top of everything else. Every drop of jelly counted.
Way before the recession and impact of the first, second and third zenith of the COVID pandemic hit, millions were already struggling. Now, more people are at breaking point. Just like their jelly, they know where every cent will be spent. Car payments or public transit make sure they get to work. A roof over their head is assurance that their family could follow the safer-at-home orders and avoid the risk of getting sick. The heat staves off the winter chill. Going without utilities means no lights, cold showers and many more trips to the laundrymat. All these things prioritized before food? And yet, we all need to eat to survive.
It’s estimated that 54 million people across our great nation will struggle with not having enough food to keep themselves and their family healthy, a 45 percent increase from 2019 (1). Food insecurity numbers are at record highs since government agencies began collecting this data in 1998 (2). One in six Americans and one in four kids have gone without (3).
Right before the turn of the year, Congress passed a package called the Consolidated Appropriations Act, widely known as the COVID Relief Bill. It brings food and nutrition assistance and other critical supports for the millions who have fallen into poverty (4). Let’s summarize the legislation’s available benefits:
For our communities:
- With fewer travelers, funds will be given to transportation services like airports, buses and trains.
- Broadband will expand into to communities with limited internet access.
- Small businesses struggling to pay employees during pandemic will receive relief.
- Education facilities will improve ventilation systems to ensure school safety.
- Rental aid and an extension on the eviction moratorium will be provided until January 31.
- $22 billion has been provided for health-related expenses incurred by state, local, Tribal and territorial governments (5)
- By now, stimulus checks landed in working folks’ bank accounts if they made $75,000 or less a year.
Many people have been donating their stimulus check or a portion of it to the Al Beech/West Side Food Pantry, the pantry associated with The Food Dignity Project. If you find yourself able to donate, please consider our food pantry. It was started in 1983 and served over 1 million meals since the onset of COVID. Every Wednesday, 2,000 people wait in line for food. Thank you in advance for any support. Checks can be made out to Al Beech Food Pantry and mailed to 190 South Sprague Street, Kingston, PA 18704.
- Through mid-March, those without jobs can receive an extra $300 in weekly unemployment benefits, on top of what they are already eligible for from their state program. Unemployment compensation will not count as income, if you apply Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Too, if you lost your job or work in your own business during the pandemic but do not qualify for unemployment benefits, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) or Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) programs offer jobless benefits. These were set to expire at the end of 2020. Because of this bill, the benefits are still accessible. If you are eligible, these programs have been extended by fifteen weeks, making them available for up to fifty weeks versus the initial thirty five (6)
In the realm of food insecurity:
- The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) increased monthly allotments by 15% through June. That increase gives about $25-30 extra per person in each household. In most states, a family of four can now receive up to $782/month breaking down to $2.10 per meal for each family member (up from $1.40). This bill also makes SNAP benefits more easily available to college students by temporarily nixing the requirement to have a job. Too, $5 million has been allocated to expand recipients’ ability to shop online (7).
Whether you use SNAP benefits or not, the program impacts you. Keep an eye out for the Food Dignity Podcast episode about SNAP boosting our economy. Until then, check the Food Research and Action Center’s, “Facts SNAP Strengths” article for more information.
- The bill will also expand food access to children 6 years old and under who used to receive free or reduced-priced breakfast and lunch at school. Through the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program, families with low-income kids receive $114 vouchers for each child per household to purchase groceries. This food replaces school meals missed when educational facilities closed or were only offering remote learning. This extension will occur until the end of September.
- It supports childcare providers involved in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and schools participating in the School Nutrition Programs by delivering 55% of the meal reimbursement lost from mid-March-June 2020. These funds are necessary to keep the meal programs running without debt.
- A task force was started to support online delivery systems for those on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
- Nutrition services for seniors, such as Meals on Wheels and congregate meal programs, received $175 million.
- For Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands-all areas who don’t have the infrastructure for these kinds of federal programming- $614 million in nutrition grants are available (8)
Over a third of people living from paycheck to paycheck, don’t qualify for the federal nutrition programs above (9). This is where the charitable food system—a collection of food banks, food pantries, and meal programs—steps in by issuing billions of pounds of food annually. Feeding America is a national network that includes approximately 200 food banks across the United States. From July-September 2020, organizations within this network handed out nearly 57% more food compared with that same time 2019. Feeding America has seen a 60% average increase in food bank users during the pandemic and about 4 in 10 are first-timers (10).
Under the COVID-relief bill, food banks received $400 million to purchase food through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and $13 million for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) serving the elderly. This necessary funding will help food banks prepare for a scheduled 50% reduction in food received from the government, while at the same time, facing an increase in demand and a potentially being 8 billion meals short of meeting this need (11).
Every one of these programs are not only feeding the hungry, they rapidly inject money back into a busted economy, create jobs, and support American farmers. But, government funds alone can’t solve the most difficult public health and economic crisis of our time.
2021 will continue bringing twists and turns, but whenever it twists and turns too much, I’m asking you to think beyond your circumstance and ask: We live in a country where hunger, inequality, poor access to healthcare and suffering should not prevail; so why does it?
It’s reckoning time. If we all work together, empathize with each other’s struggles, and fight for policy that will build all of us up, we can make sure everyone can use their jelly as they please.