Hunger in America: Covid-19 and the Nightmare of Food Insecurity

As autumn fades and winter looms, the dire predictions public-health experts made about Covid-19 have, unfortunately, proven all-too-accurate. On October 27th, 74,379 people were infected in the United States; less than a month and a half later, on December 9th, that number had soared to 218,677, while the 2020 total has just surpassed 15 million, a number no other country, not even India, which has a population three times that of the U.S., has surpassed.

And now, it seems, the third wave of the virus has arrived. As recently as late October, the embattled Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, warned that “we are in for a whole lot of hurt” and that infections could reach 100,000 a day. As it happens, he was wildly optimistic. A little more than a month later, there were more than twice that many. Is it possible, however, that the current surge is due in part to increased testing, as President Trump and others have regularly claimed? Here’s the problem. Even if that theory were true, it can’t account for the spiraling death toll, which is now more than 300,000 and could hit 450,000 by February, according to Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nor can it explain the daily Covid-19 hospitalizations, the first round of which peaked at 59,712 on July 23rd, dropped pretty steadily to a low of 28,606 on September 20th, and then started to soar, reaching 106,671 on December 9th.

Though big-picture statistics like these should help us grasp the staggering magnitude of our current public-health crisis, what they don’t reveal is the searing effects it’s had on the lives of millions of Americans, even those who have managed to evade the virus or haven’t seen friends or family fall ill or die from Covid-19. The pandemic has been especially hard for those on the front lines: doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers who experience battle fatigue and despair while besieged by suffering and deaths, visceral reminders of their own vulnerability.

In society at large, precautions — lockdowns, social distancing, limits on festive gatherings — necessary to keep Covid-19 at bay have increased loneliness and social isolation. Contrary to early expectations, reports of abuse and violence within families haven’t actually spiraled, but experts suggest that may be because the victims, confined to their homes alongside their tormentors, are finding it harder to seek help and fear reporting what’s happening to them. As for children, teachers are no longer seeing their pupils in person as regularly and so are less able to spot the typical warning signs of mistreatment.

Thankfully, the pandemic has yet to increase this country’s already alarming suicide rate, but the same can’t be said for levels of stress and depression, both of which have risen noticeably. School closures and the move to online learning have forced parents, particularly women, to scramble for childcare and to work less, even though many of them were barely getting by while working full-time, or stop working altogether, often a genuine disaster in poor families.

Not surprisingly, people who have been laid off or had their work hours reduced have fallen behind on their mortgage and rent payments. Although various federal and state moratoriums on such payments, as well as on evictions and foreclosures, were enacted, such protections will eventually end. And the moratoriums don’t negate renters’ or homeowners’ obligations to settle accounts with their bankers and landlords somewhere down the line (which for many Americans may, in the end, prove an impossibility).

Food and the Pandemic

Apart from the illness and death it causes, perhaps the most poignant consequence of Covid-19 has been the way it’s increased what’s called “food insecurity” across the United States. That ungainly term doesn’t refer to the chronic food scarcity and undernourishment, which afflicts more than 800 million people in poor countries, but rather to the disruption of people’s typical food-consumption patterns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distinguishes between what it calls low food security (“reduced quality, variability, or desirability of diet”) and the very low version of the same (“multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake”).

Surveys by the USDA and the Census Bureau show that both variants have risen steeply during the pandemic. Just before the coronavirus struck, 35 million Americans, 11 million of them children, experienced food insecurity, the lowest figure in two decades. This year, those numbers are projected to reach 54 million and 18 million respectively. In 2018, 4% of American adults reported that at least some members of their family did not have enough to eat; by July 2020, that figure had hit 11%, according to a study by Northwestern University’s Food Research and Action Center, and will only increase as the pandemic worsens.

Income supplements provided by the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Congress passed in March in response to the economic problems created by Covid-19, increases in the government’s Supplementary Nutritional Program (SNAP), and the Pandemic Electronic Benefit (P-EBT), which helps parents whose children no longer get free or subsidized school lunches, have made a difference — but not enough to make up for lost or reduced income, lost homes, and other disasters of this moment. And sadly, any follow-up to the CARES Act, assuming Congress reaches some kind of agreement on its terms before the current legislation expires at the end of December, will almost certainly be far less generous than the original law. The SNAP increases already excluded the poorest seven million households that were then receiving the maximum amount, and the new increases now under discussion in Congress would add less than one dollar to a four-person family’s maximum daily benefit. P-EBT expired in most states at the end of September, in some as early as July.

That food insecurity has “skyrocketed,” as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities puts it, during the pandemic despite government assistance shouldn’t come as a surprise. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Some have seen their earnings diminished because of furloughs, wage cuts, freezes, or reduced working hours. Others have looked for jobs in vain and finally given up (but aren’t included in official unemployment statistics). Millions of adults have children who no longer receive those free or subsidized lunchesbecause of the switch, in whole or part, to online teaching. Worse yet, as pandemic-induced firings, layoffs, and wage cuts have reduced incomes, and so consumer purchasing power, food prices, especially for meat, fish, and eggs, have only risen. Such costs have increased for other reasons as well. The pandemic has disrupted supply networks, national and international. Leery consumers, anticipating shortages or seeking to reduce trips to grocery stores to avoid being infected by Covid-19, have also resorted to panic buyingand the stockpiling of food and other necessities.

Who You Are and Where You Live Matters Most

Of course, not everyone has been hit with equal force by rising food prices. Americans high on the income ladder can absorb such extra costs easily enough and, in any case, spend a substantially smaller portion of their income on groceries. According to the USDA, adults with incomes in the top fifth of society spent 8% of their income on food last year; for the bottom fifth, it was 36%. The first group also obviously has a lot more money available to stock up on food than that bottom fifth, so many of whom have also become jobless or seen their paychecks diminish since the pandemic started. In March, for example, 39% of those making less than $40,000 had already lost their jobs or had their paychecks reduced, but only 13% of those who earned $100,000 or more, and that gap continued into the fall.

Not surprisingly, then, the bigger the hit people took from the Covid-19 recession, the more likely they were to experience food insecurity, which is why aggregate statistics on the phenomenon and other societal problems attributable to the pandemic can be misleading. They tend to mask the reality that its effects have been felt primarily by the most vulnerable, while the others have been touched much more lightly, or not at all.

The variations are rooted in ethnicity and location as well as income level (and the three tend to be closely linked). A USDA report classified 19% of Black households and 16% of Hispanic households as food insecure in 2019, compared to 8% of their white counterparts. By this summer, food insecurity had increased significantly across the board, afflicting 36% of Black, 32% of Hispanic, and 18% of white households. While the pandemic has certainly made matters worse, African Americans had the highest rate among those three groups even before it started. This was especially true of counties — the U.S. has more than 3,000 of them — in which they were in the majority. In 2016, those particular counties accounted for a mere 3% of the national total, but 96% of them had “high food insecurity,” as the Department of Agriculture defines it, as well as a poverty rate more than twice the national average (12.7% that year).

Native Americans have had the worst of it, however, since many of their families lack access to running water and plumbing (58 per 1,000 households compared to three per 1,000 for whites). Nearly 75% of Native Americans must travel more than a mile to reach a supermarket, compared to 40% of the population as a whole, and the disruption of supply chains has only diminished their food security further relative to other ethnic communities. Even prior to the pandemic, counties in which they (or Native Alaskans) constituted a majority were among those with the highest levels of food insecurity. Not coincidentally, in 2016, the poverty rate in nearly 70% of Native American-majority counties averaged a whopping 37%.

In other words, while every group has suffered in this pandemic year, race matters — a lot — when it comes to the degree of suffering.

So does income. In coronavirus-stricken America, only 1% of adults with an annual income exceeding $100,000 surveyed by the Census Bureau this summer responded that, during the preceding week, their household “sometimes or often did not have enough to eat.” Compare that to 16% of those making $25,000-$35,000 and 28% of those earning less than $25,000.

Finally, food insecurity during the pandemic has varied by location as well. Ten states (and the District of Columbia) had the highest rates, ranging from Mississippi (33.5%), which stood atop this group, to Alabama (27%), which had the lowest. In between, in descending order, were Washington, D.C., Nevada, Louisiana, New York, New Mexico, Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Food Banks and Pantries: On The Front Lines

The other day, a close friend described to me the daily scene at a food distribution center in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Well before trucks laden with food pulled up early in the morning, he said, the lines had already started forming, hundreds of people waiting patiently in a queue that encircled the block. And that’s just one of many neighborhoods in New York where this is all too typical these days. In Queens, for instance, one pantryregularly faces a demand so steep that lines can extend for eight blocks. Try to imagine what the waiting time must be. All told, 1.5 million people in the city, unable to buy the groceries they need, rely on food pantries, and New York is anything but unusual. Photographs abound of cars lined up by the hundreds, even thousands, at food pantries in major cities around the country.

Feeding America, a non-profit organization that supports 200 food storage centers and 60,000 pantries nationwide, reports that the country’s food banks have provided the equivalent of more than 4.2 billion meals since March, a 50% increase compared to a year ago and 40% of the people who come to such pantries are first-time visitors. A Consumer Reports survey of grocery shoppers found that nearly a fifth of them had turned to a food pantry since the pandemic began (half of whom hadn’t sought such help at all in 2019). In March, before the first wave of Covid-19 began to peak, 18 million Americans already used food pantries; by August, that number had climbedto 22 million, even though an additional 6.2 million people had received benefits from SNAP (the food-stamp program in common parlance) between March and May alone. By early July, 37.4 million people had signed up for SNAP compared to 35.7 million for all of last year.

Little wonder, then, that food banks, facing a tsunami of demand, have struggled to stay stocked amid rising prices, shortages, reduced donationsfrom big chain supermarkets, and disrupted supply chains. It’s also become even harder for them to raise the money they need to operate. Not a few have buckled under the strain and many have been forced to shut down. Pantries have also had a hard time mustering volunteers, in part because seniors, particularly vulnerable to the virus, made up a significant segment of such helpers. Not surprisingly, then, food banks and pantries have battled to function or simply survive in these months, while also having to implement an array of cumbersome and costly safety measures to keep volunteers, staff, and clients infection-free.

Despite their heroic role, such food banks and pantries are the equivalent of the proverbial finger in the dike. For Covid-induced food insecurity and hunger to decline significantly, the third wave of infections will have to subside and Congress will have to offer more effective aid. The Trump administration’s recent proposal, blessed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to provide a one-shot $600 check to all adults (whether they’re unemployed or not) certainly isn’t. At the same time, vaccines will have to be produced in sufficient quantities and distributed rapidly. (We are far from ready on that front.) All this in a country where striking numbers of people look askance at vaccination — in a December survey only 63% of Americans said they would be willing to get vaccinated against Covid-19 — and are also drawn to conspiracy mongers whose appeal has grown, thanks in part to social media.

Once the virus is vanquished or at least brought under reasonable control, the economy can be reopened. Then, many of the nearly 11 million at-present unemployed people will perhaps have a shot at working again or having their employers end reduced hours and cut wages.

Here’s hoping that these various stars align by summer 2021. We can then revert to pre-pandemic normalcy, even though that state of affairs was marked by substantial poverty–34 million people last year — and rising inequality.

This essay was distributed by TomDispatch.