UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

COVID-19 and Food Insecurity: The Impact of the Pandemic on the National Capital Area

Written by UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellows Cassidy Childs, Nadjad Nikabou Salifou, Torre Ippolito, Neval Mulaomerovic, Adina Mobin, and Ava Kargosha

Image courtesy of Capital Area Food Bank

Executive Summary

The issue paper aims to analyze the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected and perpetuated food insecurity in the DC area. This research utilizes quantitative data relating to food insecurity in DC as well as qualitative data from original interviews with organizations working on food security in the Greater Washington Region. Ultimately, we conclude that the pandemic has exacerbated existing trends in food insecurity and created new issues surrounding access for vulnerable populations. We conclude with select recommendations to alleviate food insecurity during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Introduction

In 1948, the UN passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which established the right to food in Article 25. The US was a major proponent of including food as a basic human right at the time; preceding the UDHR, President Roosevelt delivered the 1941 address known as the Economic Bill of Rights stating that there is “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.” However, economic rights were never constitutionalized or ratified in the US. In the decades that followed, the right to food has been reaffirmed by the World Food Summit in 1996, the UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), and most recently in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 2 directly deals with world hunger, stating:

SDG 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”

Preceding the pandemic, the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 on Zero Hunger was already faltering and failing to make the necessary progress in order to reach the 2030 goal. Since 2015, global hunger has been on the rise due to decreasing public investment in agriculture, lack of support for small-scale farmers, and a downturn in economic growth. However, the US was not following this global trend, and instead its food insecurity steadily declined in 2018 to its pre-2008 recession levels of 11.1%. Nevertheless, the pandemic has not only challenged this progress, but reversed it too. Across the board, the pandemic has revealed the ways in which our institutions are ill-prepared to support low-income households.

Food insecurity is extremely prevalent in the US, despite the US being one of the richest countries in the world. Furthermore, food insecurity and hunger are often blamed on the lack of availability of food. Yet in the US, there is enough food to feed everyone. The problem with food insecurity in the US is not the lack of availability of food, but rather the ineffective distribution of food.

The pandemic has done more to unveil the underlying issues that give rise to food insecurity in the first place. That is, there are socio-economic challenges that function as the root cause of hunger, making food insecurity a mere symptom of a larger issue at hand. For example, the strength of our social safety programs has come under additional scrutiny in the wake of COVID-19. In order to fully address the drivers of hunger, more holistic solutions and programs must be proposed.

Nevertheless, with food insecurity making headlines, the pandemic has created a bigger push for communities, non-profits, and the government to mobilize. In this report, we explore the ways in which food insecurity trends have been exacerbated, emergent challenges, and the extent to which the needs of DC-metropolitan residents are unfulfilled. By gaining additional insight from organizations working on the ground and visualizing data of DC wards through geographic information system (GIS) mapping, we seek to illustrate the new challenges of food insecurity in the National Capital Area and provide recommendations.

Identifying Metrics

The UN Committee on World Food Security defines food security as having “physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.” Whereas hunger is an individual-level discomfort, food insecurity refers to a household-level socioeconomic situation. Notably, food insecurity often occurs in conjunction with adjacent issues such as lack of access to quality healthcare or affordable housing, with these social determinants serving as “conditions in the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.” Seniors, residents of rural communities, African Americans, and Latinos are among the populations most intensely affected by food insecurity. Moreover, households with children face significantly higher rates of food insecurity (13.6 percent) than households without children (9.3 percent).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies four classifications of food security: high food security, marginal food security, low food security, and very low food security. Though national, international, and organizational definitions on food insecurity vary, most tend to focus on a lack of reliable access to ample food and can range from moderate reductions in diet quality to disruptions in adequate food intake. Food insecurity is generally framed as relying on three dominant factors: availability, access, and utilization. Availability refers to convenience of location, such as the number of grocery stores in a neighborhood or the average distance to a supermarket. Access relates to the income and welfare arrangements that determine which foods are viable options. Utilization examines the quality of food, including proper nutrition and dietary quality.

Household income is among the most prevalent determinants of food insecurity, affecting both access and utilization of food. Income is closely negatively correlated with food insecurity, impacting 41.1 percent of households living below the federal poverty line compared to 7 percent of households with income 185% above the poverty line. Moreover, welfare recipients frequently struggle with smooth spending throughout the month, resulting in periods of inadequate and inconsistent food intake. Lower household income and reliance on welfare programs, such as SNAP benefits, may also negatively impact dietary quality, as financially insecure households may choose to switch to cheaper and lower quality products to make ends meet.

Since 1995, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has expanded the metrics for food insecurity to include features of the retail food environment. Key indicators include the geographic distribution of food outlets, affecting availability and access, and the quality of the food sources, affecting utilization. For example, the Food Abundance Index, a measure of food security developed by the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, examines whether or not healthy food outlets such as supermarkets and grocery stores are available within ten-minute walking distance in urban regions or a ten-mile radius in rural regions. Characteristics of the retail food environment are also closely related to household income. Not only do low-income neighborhoods generally have fewer food outlets than high-income neighborhoods, but the outlets available are typically of lower quality. Low-income neighborhoods feature a greater abundance of fast-food outlets, convenience stores, and drug-stores and fewer supermarkets and health food stores. This disparity in access is linked to higher-calorie diets and inadequate access to organic foods and fresh produce.

Though the term “food desert” is commonly used by the USDA to indicate areas experiencing food insecurity due to this combination of low household income and inadequate food outlet access, food activists have criticized the phrase for implying that the state of food insecurity is a natural occurrence. Activists within the food justice movement have instead opted for the term “food apartheid” to bring the intersection between food security, race, and class to the forefront and highlight systemic issues contributing to disparities in food access and availability.

Data and Mapping

Median Household Income In Washington, DC by Ward (2021)

As discussed in the metrics section, two of the primary determinants of food insecurity are poverty and household income. People who cannot afford basic necessities may lower their food budget to compensate for other needs. Median household income is measured using the yearly income of households, including households of one. Wards 7 and 8 have the lowest median household income, followed by Wards 4 and 5. While median household income and food insecurity are not the same, there is an incredibly strong correlation between areas that are low income and the prevalence of food insecurity. The map below illustrates the relationship between Median Household Income and SNAP usage; we can observe a high relationship between these two variables.

Median Household Income and SNAP Relational Map | Median Household Income 2010–2014 ACS 5-year Ward Percent of Population Accessing SNAP calculated with data from Kids Count Data Center and 2010–2014 ACS 5-year Ward Population Estimates. Median Household Income Levels in 2014 Inflation Adjusted Dollars: Low ($30,000-$55,000), Medium ($55,000-$85,000), High ($85,000-$110,000) | Percentage of SNAP Usage: Low (0–10%), Medium (10–25%), High (25–45%)

The above map visualizes the relationship between median household income and the percentage of SNAP usage using data from 2014/2015. Pink, from light to dark, represents low to high median household income while blue represents the percentage of the population accessing SNAP benefits. Together, we can see the relationship between the two variables, i.e. dark blue represents where both variables are high, the purple in the center of the legend represents medium levels of household income and medium percent of SNAP usage, and so on. Looking at the relationship between SNAP usage and income, Wards 3, 7, and 8 demonstrate a predictable relationship where income is low, SNAP usage is high — and vice versa. The remaining wards, however, point to the need for a more nuanced approach to understanding how, when, and where people experience food insecurity.

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the largest anti-hunger program in the US and was described by the American Journal of Public Health as “demonstrably effective in reducing hunger, food insecurity, and poverty.” In 2017, a US Census report noted SNAP, a federal program providing food purchasing assistance to low-income people, as responsible for lifting 3.4 million people out of poverty that year. Interviews with prominent hunger relief organizations also echoed the importance of SNAP as an anti-hunger and anti-poverty government program.

The effectiveness and reputability of SNAP is crucial to keep at the forefront of anti-hunger programming as simple corporate based solutions, such as bringing a new grocery store into a food desert without addressing the structural inequalities in the food system, has not proven as effective. For example, a 2014 study found no significant changes in reported fruit and vegetable intake or BMI with the establishment of a new supermarket in a Philadelphia food desert; it was also found that few residents adopted the supermarket as their main store. In fixating on the easy-to-analyze factors of spatial access to food, the solution of increasing grocery stores in food deserts supported through the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative did less to support the health of residents and more to bolster large retailers. Multiple scholars also identified the operationalization of food desert discourse to expand retail into gentrifying neighborhoods, creating a “food mirage” phenomenon where a grocery store may exist in proximity to a low-income neighborhood while residents consider them too expensive or lacking in culturally appropriate foods.

Distribution of Grocery Stores Map

While the amount, location, and quality of grocery stores is not a main cause for food insecurity, a lack of access to quality grocery stores directly correlates to poorer health outcomes and lower median household incomes. People with poor access to grocery stores present with higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases. As of 2020, there are only two full-service grocery stores in Ward 7 and one full-service grocery store in Ward 8. For this measurement, full-service grocery stores are defined as commercial establishments where more than 50% of the store’s square footage is dedicated to food products for home consumption. Comparing this map to the previous two maps, the areas with the lowest access to grocery stores are also the areas with the lowest median household income and the highest usage of SNAP.

Improving access to grocery stores is not as easy as simply placing a grocery store in an area where one does not exist. With the addition of more grocery stores, there must be an effort to ensure that the food being sold is healthy and those in the area can afford to purchase the healthy food.

Farmers & Supply Chains: The Paradox of Food Surplus & Food Insecurity

As we explore the ways in which we can increase access to food, there’s also the question of the adverse impact COVID has had on those who supply our food — local and international farmers. In 2015, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published an article titled “Why are Most of the World’s Hungry People Farmers?” Josefina Stubbs, now the Senior Manager at Enel Green Power and a former senior official at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), stated that “three quarters of the world’s hungry are living in rural areas…Most of them depend on agriculture for their livelihood.” From the lack of investments to low market prices, many farmers struggle to keep food on the table.

Much like the families who currently experience food insecurity, the challenges that both American and non-American farmers face precede the pandemic. Prior to COVID, farmers throughout the country filed for Chapter 12 farm bankruptcy in 2019 with midwestern states accounting for more than 40%. Other pre-existing issues encompassed decreasing commodity prices as reported by the USDA that between 2012 and 2019, “producer prices for corn fell 48% from $6.89 per bushel to $3.56, and producer prices for soybeans fell 40% — almost six dollars per bushel Prices for cattle, hogs, broilers and milk have also been on downward trend over the past 5 years.”

As a consequence of the pandemic, farmers are now left with a surplus of food to sell. While we can imagine a world where farmers sell their produce to food banks, aid organizations simply cannot afford to compensate farms for their labor as much as the standard traditional restaurant. When it comes to government assistance for farmers who experience food surplus, the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program initiated in 2020 distributed a total of $1.2 billion in food surplus. The assistance program is aimed to subsidize farmers with dairy products, fresh fruits, vegetables, and canned pork and chicken. However, farms that produce a surplus of eggs for instance are excluded from this initiative. Though this project is commendable, having supplied a total of 153,040,817 food boxes from May 15 of last year to April of 2021, the fight for farmers’ financial and food security is still ongoing.

Interviewing the Experts

In order to gain a full understanding of the inner workings of America’s food systems, we interviewed an array of directors and CEOs working in diverse aspects of the food insecurity sector. A list of the experts and organizations that we interviewed is available in Appendix A.

Data and evidence

Data limitations present major barriers in identifying and solving food insecurity in Washington, D.C. Without accurate, comparable data the government and non-governmental organizations are given a distorted image of how severe and widespread food insecurity is in the city. Policies are less effective if the population being addressed is not representative of the most current reality. Food Policy Director of the D.C. Office of Planning Ona Balkus explains that their most used metrics for measuring food insecurity and food access in D.C. are unemployment and poverty. However, collecting the data is an extensive process, often taking several months to gather, analyze, and publish, leaving the Office of Planning with outdated numbers to base their policy advocacy off. Moreover, Balkus believes that without substantial evidence to support food insecurity advocacy efforts, the government and non-governmental organizations lose the chance to address the relationship between food and health. Balkus states that there is a general understanding that food and health are connected, but without the data to back it up, healthcare providers are left skeptical.

Especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, information about the newly emerging food insecure population is scarce. Chief Operating Officer of the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB) Jody Tick suggests that the CAFB has been comparing the data between those who are structurally food insecure and have been clients for many years versus those who are temporarily kitchen-less or homeless. The pandemic has offered a unique lens through which to perceive the problem of food insecurity in the District, as the general uptick in the number of residents who consider themselves to be food insecure has risen exponentially. However, CEO of Hunger Free America Joel Berg claims that the population of food insecure residents is much larger than reported. He states that not only are the traditional metrics used to measure food insecurity — unemployment and poverty — simply reactionary consequences, but that the method to collect food insecurity data in its entirety is flawed. Berg explains, “Domestically, food insecurity is pegged to a questionnaire based on food sufficiency. That is the one and only metric,” referring to the Bureau of the Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual supplement located within the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS). On the other hand, Director of Advocacy & Public Policy at the Capital Area Food Bank, Adam LaRose, argues otherwise. LaRose believes that there are too many metrics used to measure food insecurity, which he thinks is a significant data limitation. LaRose and Berg diverge in their views on data, because quantifying food insecurity accounting for those who are food insecure is different than accounting for the drivers and correlates of food insecurity.

Media coverage and public discourse

As food insecurity has become more pervasive during the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue has made national headlines. The media coverage surrounding food insecurity in D.C. and the country has produced mixed results. First and foremost, issue salience in the media has allowed federal and local governments to invest more resources into the problem. For example, after the D.C. Office of Planning published their Food Access and Food Security report in 2020, it was highlighted by the Washington Post. Balkus notes that a public forum was established to continue the dialogue. Another positive outcome of increased issue salience is that institutions are more likely to offer financial support to cities in need.

Media framing can also be misleading, according to Berg. He explains that the news does not highlight the longstanding systematic factors that contribute to food insecurity. Berg goes on to recount that “the number of Americans who are sometimes in poverty is about ten times the number of people who are always in poverty,” but the media will not emphasize the nuances of this issue. Instead, it will focus on the “feel good” stories. He states that the press tends to overemphasize the role of charities and downplay the role of the government, which is the only sustainable avenue to enact change. Balkus expands upon this point, describing how the media focuses on isolated events like a restaurant taking one day to serve food to residents in need. Stories like this are attention-grabbing, but they overlook the structural complexities of food insecurity mitigation. Tick explains, “we also need to look at what we want our food systems to look like and how to make them more equal and inclusive after we rebuild from this.”

Demographics

A large population of food insecure individuals in the United States is made up of senior citizens, and due to the pandemic, the demand for food assistance outweighs the capacity of many aid organizations. Jody Tick explains that although the Capital Area Food Bank implements targeted senior citizen programs, the food bank is not able to deliver meals to all senior homes in need.

Additionally, immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, face vulnerablility due to the fear of interrogation when contacting food banks and centers. This added barrier prevents people in need from seeking help from food assistance organizations. Furthermore, immigrants in general are often excluded from government programs due to varying residency and citizenship statuses. Berg believes that there is a large population of immigrants who should be accepted into these programs, but aren’t due to barely exceeding the income cutoff, which is approximately $2,300 a month for a family of three. He believes that these groups are a vulnerable population that needs to be given considerations beyond strict income levels. Moreover, Berg discusses how the population of people who fluctuate in and out of food insecurity is larger than the population that is consistently food insecure and under the poverty line. Berg emphasizes the importance of making sure the people on the edge of food insecurity are given the resources they need to stay above the threshold. Berg, Tick, and LaRose call for expansions to aid eligibility in order to better reach these vulnerable demographics.

Governmental policy

A key issue in the lack of funding for D.C. programming is that D.C. is not a state. According to Ona Balkus, the budget for the D.C. area is inherently difficult to manage and effectively allocate due to this lack of structure and leadership. Balkus continues to explain that measuring progress is crucial to determining how to quantify food insecurity in the most efficient way. These measurement tools and data are not as readily recorded for D.C. as they are for states. Adam LaRose seconds this sentiment and states that D.C. was classified as a territory during COVID-relief package negotiations, leaving 800 million dollars of CARES Act money out of reach.

Jody Tick claims that governmental policy is the greatest obstacle when it comes to battling food insecurity, as the United States does not have an issue with a lack of food quantity being grown, but a lack of adequate food distribution. She describes that the U.S. does not currently have comprehensive food and farm policies to address these distristribution and cost questions at the beginning of the supply chain. Joel Berg agrees, as he states that nations with strong social welfare infrastructures have less food insecurity issues, rendering the problem in the U.S. a challenge of power politics rather than a lack of food itself. Evidence of this can be shown with the country of Denmark, as it is often praised for its strong social structures. Approximately 4% of Denmark households experience food insecurity, compared to 11% in American households. Moreover, Berg notes that the differences in food access issues between rural areas and urban areas in America are often overstated, especially as they arise from the same root issue of poverty. Adam LaRose comments that the reality of poverty is not acknowledged in current policy, but that there has thankfully been a growing shift towards a more holistic approach to policy. This needs to be done in order to address gaps in our food infrastructure and the big question of why so many people are in need of food assistance in the first place.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, LaRose notes that it is a difficult time to ask the government for funding. However, LaRose also mentions that state and local governments have been more willing to put work into food insecurity as poverty rates and unemployment rates have skyrocketed in the past year. Berg shares similar experiences with policymakers and describes how this increase in generosity is related to the new ‘natural disaster’ context of the issue. The pandemic has currently taken the blame for the issue of food insecurity, while unfortunately, those experiencing food insecurity are the ones who are normally blamed. Polls have shown that over half of Americans believe that a major cause of poverty is ‘lack of motivation’, therefore blaming poverty on people who are experiencing it. Although this sudden governmental generosity is bittersweet, Berg speaks favorably about the Biden-Harris administrations’ new anti-hunger and anti-poverty policies, which include SNAP expansions. LaRose echoes this sentiment with the newly expanded child tax credits and unemployment benefits that have recently been rolled out.

Economic and structural changes

Joel Berg describes the structural economic changes that must be implemented in order to end hunger in America. The first essential milestone is making sure that people are making living wages off of their jobs. Next, he describes the importance of constructing comprehensive social programs and making necessities affordable, in order to act as a safety net against food insecurity. Berg explains that although there are great programs in existence, they are not effective if they are underfunded. He continues to describe the severe wealth disparity in D.C. in which people in geographical pockets of poverty and people with great wealth inhabit the same communities. Stark contrasts between neighborhoods indicate the prominent wealth distribution issue in D.C., and in the country as a whole. Adam LaRose further emphasizes that the anti-hunger policies that CAFB is pushing for are inherently anti-poverty, as one cannot be achieved without the other. The economic structures in place that have allowed for millions of people to go hungry are the same structures that have created and maintained the high levels of poverty and wealth disparities.

Recommendations

The first recommendation is an expansion in SNAP/TANF benefits. Among the working poor who are eligible for SNAP, 44% access benefits and only 46% of eligible people aged 60 years or older participate. Lack of knowledge is one of the most salient barriers to participation among people over the age of 50, with survey respondents indicating that they did not enroll for SNAP because they did not know that the program existed, did not think that they would qualify, or felt that the potential benefits of the program would be overshadowed by the time and energy required by the application process. Increasing public awareness on eligibility standards and the benefits associated with SNAP is key to not only inform people of their eligibility, but also dismantle the stigma associated with receiving benefits that pushes many people away from enrolling. Moreover, eligibility standards must be expanded to undocumented immigrants and low-income college students. The application process also requires a more holistic approach beyond just income level. As Berg stated, a fluctuation in income may push vulnerable groups to just above SNAP’s income threshold and prevent them from receiving benefits. However, this slight increase in income does not mean that those same people are no longer food secure or free from the risk of returning to food insecurity.

Expanding SNAP eligibility and participation requires significant investment both at the federal and local level. DC’s Department of Human Services Economic Security Administration is responsible for financing 50% of administrative costs, yet DC is at a disadvantage in the distribution of federal funding. During the passage of the CARES Act, for example, DC was given less than half of the minimum funding guaranteed to states due to its classification as a territory. DC’s budget formulation process is also dependent on approval from Congress, which can result in delays in implementation or disagreement between local and federal officials. Greater budgeting independence as well as increased funding are vital to expand SNAP benefits.

Media portrayal on the issue of food insecurity often characterizes the narrative to be one of individual struggles that can be fixed by individuals in the community. Although food banks and similar community programs do help people in need, it only temporarily treats the symptoms of a much larger, systemic issue. News outlets tend to feature “hero” stories of individuals doing charity work, because it is more personal and overall a compelling story. Unfortunately, they fail to portray the realities of the food insecurity crisis and the policies and infrastructure in place that create a lack of food access in the first place. Media coverage on governmental food policies and SNAP overviews do not capture viewers’ attention as well as an individual’s charity story, and so the realities and roots of food insecurity often go unheard.

Second, this report recommends the expansion of cooperation between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Partnerships between sectors have the potential to combine the know-how and experience of nonprofits with the economic efficiency of the private sector. Understanding of the financial constraints and lack of funding of both the public and nonprofit sectors, the private sector can support the fostering of innovation and scaling up of best practices in service to hunger and poverty alleviation. For example, one need of nonprofits in emergency food response is for more storage and kitchen space due in part to zoning regulatory policies and in part to limited funding. This opening for private partnership could then assist in building the capacity of food aid organizations to increase their service to food insecure populations.

The third recommendation is that the federal government should prioritize quickly publishing new data on food insecurity. While we were interviewing Balkus, she mentioned that the Office of Planning was working with 2018 USDA data on food insecurity. Balkus claimed that the 2018 data was no longer relevant in 2021 with the pandemic and newer data had not been released. By not having access to real-time data, effective government response to the pandemic is difficult, because they cannot tailor a response that identifies struggling populations. The government can foster better responses to food insecurity by ensuring that USDA data is updated quickly for local government offices.

Final Thoughts

This issue paper sought to evaluate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on food insecurity in the greater DC area. Combining quantitative data on food insecurity before the COVID-19 pandemic and qualitative data from experts working on food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, the research concludes that the COVID-19 pandemic will perpetuate existing food insecurity issues and create new issues of access to vulnerable populations. Then using the experts’ testimony, this issue paper offered three policy recommendations that address the roots of hunger in DC and are most effective for solving food insecurity.

Appendix A: Interviews

  1. Hunger Free America- CEO: Joel Berg
  2. DC Office of Planning- Food Policy Director: Ona Balkus
  3. Capital Area Food Bank- Policy Director: Adam LaRose
  4. Capital Area Food Bank- Chief Operating Officer: Jody Tick

Appendix B: Food Insecurity Data

Exportable Data: Food Insecurity and Pandemic Data Matrix

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