Right now, going to sleep with an empty stomach is a tragic reality happening in communities across the United States. As the pandemic moves into its deadliest wave yet and economic relief from the federal government remains up in the air, millions are struggling to stock their pantries and feed their families.
“To be clear, hunger is not a new problem, but COVID-19 has greatly exacerbated food insecurity rates and the social injustices that have long existed at the root of hunger, from systematic racism in the food system to the lack of a living wage,” says Noreen Springstead, executive director at WhyHunger, a national nonprofit organization leading the fight against hunger in the U.S. and around the world.
Springstead reveals that in the institution’s 45-year history, it has never witnessed a hunger crisis of this magnitude.
“This year more than 54 million Americans, including over 18 million children, will struggle with food insecurity,” she says. “That’s a more than 50% increase due to the impact of COVID-19. Poverty is one of the biggest factors of hunger, and with many having lost their jobs in recent months, we have seen hunger spike at alarming rates. With skyrocketing unemployment and food banks pushed to their limits, COVID-19 is laying bare just how many families have been living on the edge, and how fractured our social safety net has become.”
Here, food insecurity experts share some of the most effective ways to get involved and to do your part to combat this crisis.
How can I help people who don’t have enough food?
Before you go buying up a bunch of canned goods from the grocery store to donate, do the research. Check in with local food banks to inquire about which items are most essential at this time.
“Ask what types of food or supplies they need the most,” Springstead recommends. “Do they have a refrigerator or freezer space to accept fresh produce and meat? What day is the best to accept fresh food? Better yet, call and ask the organization what types of culturally appropriate foods they need.”
Nutritious meals are key, so donate fresh foods whenever possible. “Many who depend on food pantries and soup kitchens may have diet-related diseases like diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure and require foods low in sugar, fat, and salt to maintain their health,” Springstead advises.
Is donating food going to solve the crisis?
Unfortunately, it will not, according to just about every expert who works in and studies this space. The issue is that many people operate under the incorrect assumption that the simple act of donating pounds of food is the solution.
“After 50 years of food banking in the U.S., with the most sophisticated food charity system in the world, hunger persists,” Springstead explains. “People need nourishing food now, but we know food charity alone will never end hunger. We need to look at the root causes. People are poor and hungry because of systemic racism, economic injustice, and social injustice.”
She says that to truly build a just, hunger-free world, we need collective action to address hunger’s root causes head-on. That would mean putting a stop to industrial agriculture and climate change, ending racism and dismantling White supremacy, ending exploitation and demanding a living wage for all workers, and ensuring access to housing and health care for all.
How can the government address the issue of hunger?
When it comes to public policy, there are plenty of ways the federal government can spring into action, says Rachel Sabella, New York director of No Kid Hungry, which is working to end childhood hunger by helping to launch and improve programs that give all kids the healthy food they need to thrive. Since March, the organization has granted more than $46 million to nearly 1,500 schools and community groups across the country toward a total goal of $60 million before year’s end.
“Trusted partners like food pantries and schools are essential in feeding kids, but they can’t do it alone,” Sabella says. “Our nation is at a breaking point right now. Congress must pass a stimulus bill that addresses the hunger and hardship families are facing, and it must include a temporary increase to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides families with a grocery store benefit. One of the best ways to feed hungry kids during a pandemic is by ensuring that their families have sufficient resources to buy food.”
How is the pandemic specifically affecting food insecurity among children?
There’s no denying that COVID-19 has made hunger more of a visible issue, especially with so many kids remote-learning. Fortunately, school meals are still being provided, and this year they’re being offered to all students at no cost. You can check with your local school district to find out exactly when and where meals are available, but many are offering grab-and-go and drive-thru options to make pick up safe and convenient.
“Long lines at food banks and a big uptick in applications for benefits programs show just how many Americans are hurting,” Sabella says. “But still, I think many may be surprised to hear that as many as 1 in 4 kids could face hunger this year, or that the pandemic has essentially erased a decade’s worth of the progress we had made toward ending childhood hunger.”
What other resources should I read up on to help the fight against food insecurity?
Reach out to your member of Congress and ask him or her to support programs that feed kids and families. “Right now that means passing a stimulus bill that expands SNAP,” Sabella says.
Following and supporting community-led solutions to hunger and its root causes is another significant way you can work to address this urgent issue. WhyHunger recommends these groups and organizations: Black Farmer Fund, Black Urban Growers (BUGS), Climate Justice Alliance, Closing the Hunger Gap, Food Chain Workers Alliance, the Global Solidarity Alliance for Food, Health and Social Justice, I-Collective, National Black Food & Justice Alliance, Poor People’s Campaign, and the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance.