FEATURE - US Food Security Crisis: Record Numbers Go Hungry Amid Pandemic

FEATURE - US Food Security Crisis: Record Numbers Go Hungry Amid Pandemic

WASHINGTON (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 07th April, 2021) ASHINGTON, April 7 (Sputnik), Barrington M. Salmon - Anne Miskey, the CEO of Union Station Homeless Services in Los Angeles, California, has watched with growing alarm as the pandemic throws people into states of hunger not witnessed in a generation.

In the Los Angeles area, where more than 1 in 4 households are suffering from food insecurity, Miskey said they have "absolutely seen a huge difference" in the numbers since the COVID outbreak in early 2020. Shining a bright light on this reality was an event in Pasadena last year where more than 2,000 meals were handed out to the homeless and hungry.

"We had people lined up around the block for two full days," Miskey told Sputnik.

Meanwhile, just as the need for help spiked across the country, a pandemic-induced shortfall in volunteers made matters worse, while the US public health system and the social safety net failed.

Miskey said before the pandemic, volunteers made significant contributions to the fight against food insecurity almost every night of the week at churches, synagogues, and food banks.

"But when COVID hit, volunteerism stopped," Miskey said.


Food insecurity in the United States, prior to the pandemic, was at its lowest level since the Great Recession, although it still affected around 37 million people, according to Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the country.

That number grew by eight million by the end of 2020 - largely as a result of COVID-19.

In March, the group forecasted that 42 million people may experience food insecurity in 2021.

In the District of Columbia, George Jones, CEO of Bread for the City, observed the debilitating effects of COVID-19 on the lives of so many who were already suffering in the nation's capital.

"Ten thousand people are getting food from us and about 100 people come to the center although we encourage them not to - and we hand them bags," he told Sputnik. "When looking at food insecurity, the world looks so different now. Our focus is getting people access to food and figuring out how to sustain a model that's equitable. The pandemic is not quite yet over so we are looking at a safe, reliable way to serve our clients."

While Bread for the City staff were paying $40,000 a month to deliver food, during the pandemic, that cost has skyrocketed to $500,000 a month, Jones said.

According to Bread for the City estimates, 324,000 DC households experience food insecurity. And each month, Bread for the City's two food pantries provide nutritious groceries - including fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats - to more than 8,400 clients living near the Federal poverty line. In addition, the agency holds two monthly Farmers Markets that offers fresh produce to the community at large, and as a Grocery Plus distribution site, where staff distributes an additional 30-pound box of food to a small number of seniors.

Meanwhile, as a result of one of the fallouts of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans have lost their jobs and have fallen thousands of Dollars behind on rent and utility bills, straining to hold onto money to take care of basic needs. The stakes are high for some 20 million Americans who are receiving some kind of unemployment aid.

Miskey said those most deeply affected by the pandemic and the resulting lockdown and economic meltdown are those families that were already facing hunger or are one paycheck away from facing hunger.

She also said the pandemic highlighted the reliance on non-profits and faith groups who had to "pick up the slack" in order to support vulnerable families and individuals because government systems had failed.

Dr. Joseph Llobrera of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said the pandemic's effect on families and individuals has been startling.

"My guess is there are a lot of families who weren't suffering before the pandemic but families are dealing with loss of income and breadwinners taken by COVID-19," said Llobrera, director of Research and Interim Program Area Lead for the Food Assistance team. "Some families are one missed paycheck away from homelessness. We have a situation where people who never needed this help. It has exposed the country's safety net. Systems are so old and there's not been a lot of investment. We need a system that doesn't allow people to fall."

About 13 million children (1 in 6), according to Feeding America, are expected to be food insecure in 2021, slightly better than the 15 million that were last year.

Llobrera said based on the data he and his staff have been tracking the impact on children is "off the charts."

"I haven't seen anything like this in the last several decades," Llobrera told Sputnik.

"A household Pulse survey shows that roughly 10 million kids are in households where they aren't getting enough to eat. Parents are usually trying to protect kids, shield them from lack of food, skip meals and hide so kids don't see it."

He said 2019 data captured before the pandemic showed one million children were "encountering the severity" of missing out on meals.

"We're going to pay the cost - mental and physical development - not just in the near term," Llobrera said. "It will affect childrens' ability to focus or do well in school and could affect high school completion rates, test scores and getting well-paying jobs as adults."

Llobrera said the US is different from a number of other countries in terms of what society sees as a worthwhile investment.

"Keeping food on the table, paying overhead, and housing stability... will pay dividends in terms of healthy, productive citizens down the road," he said. "Without this, kids will suffer and the effect will be borne by a generation of kids."


Even after the pandemic passes, policy advocates and experts believe there are deeper structural problems in both government and society that need to be addressed, including structural racism.

Miskey and Jones explained that it is impossible to separate food insecurity from gentrification, low wages, displacement and homelessness.

COVID-19 has laid bare the structural, institutional, economic and racial inequities that separate African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans from their white counterparts. Marginalized communities have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus.

"People need help but needing help is seen as something weak or bad. Healthcare workers, people of color and immigrants are making horrible wages," Miskey said. "They cannot afford afterschool care for kids, don't have money for affordable housing and struggle to make ends meet. This is a war against the poor. They tell people that they did this to themselves. There are millions of people who have no opportunity or who are intentionally excluded from opportunity. Racism is the #1 factor for excluding people."

Jones pointed to the harsh reality that the United States - and the planet for that matter - have been created where some have enough and others do not have adequate resources.

"We really aspire to create a world with equity, access to healthy food and water," Jones said. "We continue to push government leaders and others to create an equity city even as we meet people where they are."

Jones said for himself, his staff and his organization, it is a battle on two fronts: fighting to erase systemic inequalities and helping link people without access to needed resources.

Meanwhile, homelessness is doubling under COVID and people are scrambling to step back from the abyss. A new report almost certainly underestimates the spread, depth and urgency of the crisis, and not by a little, federal officials warned.

The report showed a 2.2 percent increase in homelessness from the previous year, but that does not reflect the displacement of people who lost work as a result of the sharp downturn caused by the coronavirus. Even before the pandemic, homelessness was re-emerging as a major national problem, especially in big cities. The country's two biggest cities, New York and Los Angeles, account for a quarter of all homeless people counted in the 2020 survey.

Homelessness affects Black and Latino communities with disproportionate force. About 40 percent of people counted were Black, compared with their 13 percent representation in the population, and nearly a quarter of homeless people self-identified as Latino, a group that makes up about 18 percent of all Americans.

Miskey said as she views the challenges and devastation food insecurity has had on poor, near-poor, low-income and middle-class Americans, she feels anger and frustrated because most of this is and was avoidable.

"I agree with other critics that the US is a failed state. I think our systems have massively failed people," she said. "I think our system was set up to fail. What they are set up to do is to keep up the status quo, ensuring that those people of privilege and wealth maintain their privilege and wealth."

Meanwhile, everyone else is blamed for their supposed character defects or failures because all the opportunities are out there if you grab it, Miskey explained.

"The fact is, our system creates massive barriers for opportunity and doesn't allow huge chunks of our communities to actually access those things. That's the shame of our system, the shame of our government. We're a system, as I said before, where we have a war on the poor, not a war on poverty," Miskey concluded.