Unprecedented, but not unpredictable: COVID-19 and the Food Insecurity Crisis
In 2019, 4.3 billion meals were distributed to more than 40 million Americans through a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries, schools, soup kitchens and shelters, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization.
They estimate that over the next six months an additional 17.1 million people will be food insecure and a projected $1.4 billion in resources will be needed to provide food. This is due to the steady rise of unemployment and poverty rates — two drivers of food insecurity. And this is just in our nation, alone.
The global food crisis we’re facing is certainly unprecedented, but it wasn’t unpredictable.
COVID-19 exacerbated already underlying systemic issues. In other words, the pandemic significantly magnified the amount of barriers stacked up against vulnerable populations accessing the resources needed to live longer, healthier lives such as healthy food and quality health care, to name a few.
Food banks, a primary source of sustenance for those in need, are overstretched and under-resourced. Most are experiencing triple the demand, if not higher, and the elevated demand has caused operational challenges including a decline in volunteers and donations. Thwarted by risks of the virus, it’s more difficult to safely recruit and coordinate volunteering. And restaurants and grocery stores, who were among top sources of food donations, no longer have the same amount of food to donate.
With the volunteers and operating staff they do have, an added layer of strain is having to modify distribution processes to maintain client and volunteer safety due to the pandemic. Retailers like Giant Food, who support those who are food insecure, are also figuring out how to pivot their services.
Jillian Griffith, MSPH, RDN, LDN, is a nutritionist and retail dietitian for Giant Food in Ward 8 of Washington, D.C. Last year, her store added an onsite wellness room called Congress Heights Wellness Space, dedicated to nutrition education, fitness classes and other wellness programming for customers. Both individual consultations and group sessions, along with standard services were offered by the Giant Nutrition team such as bi-weekly podcast episodes, a blog, and workplace wellness webinars for businesses.
Amid COVID-19, Giant’s Nutrition team pivoted from in-person offerings to all digital. This meant hosting programs and conducting individual consultations via Zoom and other web-based platforms, as well as over the phone. But Griffith’s location has unique needs, so this shift raises concerns for her.
“My store is the only grocery retailer in Ward 8, an area with a high chronic disease rate and the highest poverty rate” said Griffith. For perspective, that’s one grocery store for a community with a population size of over 80,000 people. “Prior to COVID-19, I engaged with the local community through in-person consultations and programs both in the store and in the community. Many of the community members have not engaged with my team online since the pandemic, and it has been hard to raise awareness of our services and increase engagement during this time without physically being in the store and community. For some, especially the senior population who are not technologically savvy or do not have smartphones or personal computers at home, there is a digital divide.”
The digital divide is concerning because this community needs her team’s services the most given the high prevalence of underlying health issues that exist. During the pandemic, her focus is heavily on connecting to customers via phone that she can’t reach via other digital platforms.
The impact of the coronavirus on families is widely felt. Households who’ve never been food insecure before are now facing a new reality. For this reason, Griffith and her team are using Giant Food’s social media to share tips on how to prepare meals with pantry staples with those who otherwise would not know.
She also offers guidance to dietitians on how to sensitively approach conversations with their patients in these novel times. “As the unemployment rate continues to rise, resources are more stretched for many families. Budgets and food insecurity must be top of mind as dietitians are working with clients. I encourage them to spend time conducting food insecurity screenings and asking pertinent questions around budget, so that suggested dietary plans are also cost efficient.”
Many individuals and organizations are looking for ways to help those who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Griffith offers the following thoughts for all of us:
- Be thoughtful when selecting brand items — “If you’re selecting a product with a WIC sticker and you have the resources to purchase a different brand, consider doing so. Those using WIC and SNAP funds don’t have the choice of selecting alternative brands. If you take the last item of the labeled item off the shelf, that leaves them with no option for that product.”
- Take only what you need—“Shop mindfully. Remember, supply chains that are supporting many grocery retailers have also been hit hard trying to keep up with demand. Be mindful of what you need, but leave things for other families on the shelves, too.”
- Check on your neighbors and colleagues — “Now is the time to care for families and friends who are at a distance. You never know what people are going through — financially, mentally, or emotionally.”
- Ensure your employees are aware of resources and supports available both within the company and their community.
- Identify and find ways to support local anti-hunger organizations through financial and product donations.
- Partner with organizations who are mobilizing hunger relief efforts on a national scale such as Feeding America.
For organizations wanting to make an impact including and beyond anti-hunger efforts, partnering with national organizations like the American Heart Association (AHA) can help downstream effects of COVID-19.
The AHA is widely known as the nation’s oldest and largest patient organization dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke. A critical part of their core mission and response to COVID-19 is not just advancing cardiovascular care through research, discovery, and innovation, but also ensuring the greatest needs of communities are prioritized including access to care, proper nourishment, financial support, and physical activity.
The AHA is filling in the cracks not covered by government services while providing life-sustaining support for under-resourced communities by:
- Partnering with hunger relief organizations to distribute meals through local emergency food systems
- Delivering healthy foods to the elderly and disadvantaged who cannot travel outside
The organization also works with federal, state and local governments to advocate for programs such as child nutrition programs and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as policies that help ensure people in the greatest need are protected.
Often, those who are food insecure are also in need of access to quality health care. In addition to hunger relief efforts, the AHA supports patients by:
- Distributing home health kits to those with high blood pressure
- Providing Infant CPR Anytime Kits to families with newborns since hospitals have ceased in-person CPR training classes for families due to COVID-19
- Supporting health care workers transitioning to telehealth services
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”
Food insecurity is a massive public health crisis. Although it stems from structural inequities, humanity has a collective responsibility to help implement solutions for our neighbors — particularly during this global pandemic. Everyone deserves the opportunity to live a long, healthy life, but it can’t be done solely by one person or organization.
Whether you’re an individual or company making a financial or product donation, or simply checking on your loved ones or employees — ask yourself, “what am I doing for others?”
Remember, we’re all in this together.