COVID-19 crisis could increase food insecurity among minority communities: studies

Click to play video: 'U.S. hunger crisis hits minorities hard amid pandemic'
U.S. hunger crisis hits minorities hard amid pandemic
COVID-19 has nearly doubled food insecurity in the U.S., with racialized Americans and children being disproportionately impacted. – Jul 19, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic does not discriminate against its victims.

Minority communities, including Black, Latinx and Indigenous, have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Heart disease, obesity and hypertension are more prevalent among these groups, increasing the risk of contracting the virus, and suffering from sometimes fatal complications.

This novel-coronavirus outbreak has compounded those problems, and has created new economic ones.

At the height of the pandemic, more than 40 million Americans lost their jobs. Studies show the vast majority of the workforce lives paycheque-to-paycheque. Budgets tightened up, meaning things like groceries fell on the list of priorities.

We’re seeing much higher rates of food insecurity,” says Sara Bleich, a health policy professor with Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Medicine. “That essentially means that people are having trouble feeding themselves,” she added.

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Hunger impacts roughly one in ten people within the U.S. population, and Bleich says since the COVID-19 outbreak “food insecurity appears to have doubled among the general population and also among kids, [to] one out of four.

According to the Hamilton Project, a Washington, DC-based think tank, 14 million children went hungry in June – 10 million more than in 2018. Feeding America projects the total number of children suffering from food insecurities could top 18 million by the end of 2020.

Click to play video: 'How mini-pantries fight food insecurity in the community'
How mini-pantries fight food insecurity in the community

Lodged in those figures are a growing number of minorities that are struggling to survive the economic crash.

People of colour make up a significant portion of the “essential workforce”– employed in the food services, health care and transportation sectors. Many of these employees already fall below the federal poverty line. The headwinds from the COVID-19 situation were increasing, bringing with them a new food-related crisis.

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Data from the 2020 U.S. census shows that 25 per cent of Latinx households struggle with food insecurities. That figure rises to 30 per cent for Black households. Fewer than 10 per cent of white households find themselves in that position.

In Canada, findings from the University of Toronto’s Food Insecurity Policy Research show that while 12 per cent of white children live in food-insecure households, Black children make up 36 per cent. The study also says 78 per cent of children in Nunavut live with food insecurity.

“The black-white disparities, the rich-poor disparities are getting wider. And that means that the recovery time is going to be that much longer” says Bleich.

U.S. lawmakers passed a series of stimulus bills earlier this year to offset the impact of the virus. A pandemic-benefit was also passed to assist the nearly 40 million people receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit, colloquially known as food stamps.

Click to play video: 'Daily Bread Food Bank needs your help amid coronavirus outbreak'
Daily Bread Food Bank needs your help amid coronavirus outbreak

That additional income provided families in need with an additional $600 per month for a family of four. Health experts say the amount is inadequate, especially in larger cities where the cost of living is not factored into the amount.

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That extra benefit is set to expire at the end of July, despite historic unemployment figures. There are calls for lawmakers to extend the pandemic-benefit into 2021, but an associated bill has stalled in the U.S. Senate.

Policy experts say SNAP benefits have the ability to stimulate the economy. During the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, Congress passed a bill that allotted a family of four an additional 13 per cent to their monthly food assistance program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says a $1-billion increase in SNAP could result in a $1.5-billion increase in economic spending.

The months-long closure of schools also took away a critical asset in keeping kids fed. Roughly 30 million students rely on school-provided lunches. Half of them also rely on breakfast programs.

“If we’re not continuing to feed them the way that we have been … that could be horrible,” says Stacey Joy, a Grade 4 teacher in Los Angeles, Calif. Her school served free breakfast as well as reduced-price or free lunches.

Not having a free meal might not deter parents from sending their children back to school, however, Joy says “you can give them the device, but if they’re hungry, they’re not learning.”

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School lunches provide a dual-benefit. Kids get at least one square meal per day, which assists families by cutting down on some grocery bills, allowing them to save a little money.

“We must recognize healthy food as a human right,” says Alison Blay-Palmer, director of the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems. Food banks, government handouts and charities all have a place, but Blay-Palmer says there needs to be a shift “toward building sustainable, just, and resilient food systems.”

Click to play video: 'Food security concerns growing as coronavirus crisis continues'
Food security concerns growing as coronavirus crisis continues

Food costs are also rising in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. The virus struck several meat processing plants leading to supply issues, while eating patterns have generally shifted with stay-at-home orders which resulted in diminished stock across grocery stores aisles.

The issue of hunger in the United States stretches beyond the current pandemic. Food deserts have existed for decades, leaving low-income communities with few options to obtain quality nutritious food. Wage disparities and socio-economic inequalities also factor in, adding to the struggles many communities of colour face during this outbreak.

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“This is not just an infectious disease crisis [or] whether or not people will get sick and die. It’s about whether or not people will survive and thrive,” says Jewel Mullen, Associate Dean for Health Equity at the Dell Medical School in Houston, Texas.

In the United States, the top ten counties struggling with persistent hunger are 60 per cent Black, with seven of the counties in one state. Long-standing policies have made it difficult for many people to gain access to education, or high-paying jobs, amplifying the hunger situation that exists.

Health experts say the upcoming election could be an opportunity to bring about change.

“These are the opportunities that I hope would motivate young people to see that they have a stake in really developing what the future ought to be,” says Mullen.

For now, the future for hungry Americans is bleak.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office predicts economic recovery could take a decade. Mullen says new policies need to be in place before that, “to eliminate the social and economic inequalities that drive the downward spiral that lands in poor physical health, mental health and social well-being.”

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–With a file from Reuters

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