Ideas & Insights / All Perspectives / Ideas & Insights

Coronavirus and Food Access: Four Questions Every Community Needs to Answer

In recent days, photos of empty supermarket shelves have been trending on social media, and the makers of shelf-stable items like dried beans and soups have seen their stock price tick up. As confirmed COVID-19 cases grow in communities across the country, many Americans are heeding the advice of local officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by stocking up on food and supplies (and hopefully, washing their hands!).

Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to take this precaution. Consider the nearly 40 million Americans who struggle with food insecurity. These households almost certainly don’t have the excess cash to stock up on groceries in case they need to isolate at home for extended periods. Think of the 30 million schoolchildren across the country who rely on school meals to fill their bellies twice a day, and the thousands of food pantries that rely on volunteers to distribute donations. And what about working families who cannot use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to order food online? For these families, the relatively modest inconveniences many Americans will confront due to disruptions in the food system could have catastrophic consequences.

For the nearly 40 million Americans struggling with food insecurity, the relatively modest inconveniences many Americans will confront due to disruptions in the food system could have catastrophic consequences.

To ensure equity in our response to the coronavirus, here are four questions that government officials, employers, businesses and community leaders across the country should be asking themselves right now:

  1. How can we help low-income Americans stock-up on food? The USDA’s SNAP distributes benefits once per month, and research has shown that for some families, benefits are so lean that food runs out by the end of the second or third week. When working families are on a tight budget, stocking up on several extra weeks of food is likely impossible. The USDA has indicated that waivers and other disaster-related options are available to the SNAP program in times of crises. Cities and states should be educating themselves now on the best way for their communities to access and extend these benefits, and to go beyond them if necessary. Retailers, employers and community groups should consider offering matching coupons to extend the buying power for SNAP customers temporarily to enhance preparedness.
  2. How will we feed students in need if schools close or transition to remote learning? Approximately 30 million students utilize free and reduced meals at school in the U.S. For far too many children school lunches and breakfasts are their only reliable source of food for the day. As schools in some communities close, district officials must begin thinking about how to serve those students at home or outside of schools. Over the weekend, the USDA announced it would provide waivers in Washington State and other areas affected by the coronavirus so that students could continue to utilize government-funded meals even while not in school. Local officials, parent groups and community organizations should start thinking now about how they will get meals distributed to students and how such a program would operate.
  3. How will we support our emergency food system – particularly food banks and pantries – during what may be a long-term strain? Food banks and pantries provide a vital service to food insecure households, and they run on donations and volunteers. This infrastructure will be critically important in the weeks and months to come, but is also at risk of running out of supplies and struggling to recruit volunteers. Many food banks were already under strain due to changes in SNAP regulations. We must consider ways to bolster this system, whether through corporate volunteerism, donations, or philanthropic support.
  4. How will we ensure equitable food distribution, especially if we move to delivery-based retail models? Many communities around the country have emergency feeding plans that require large groups to congregate in order to receive food in post-disaster settings. This, of course, makes sense in response to a natural disaster, but has obvious risks during an infectious disease outbreak. It is more likely we will turn to delivery-based models of food distribution. However, most consumers cannot use SNAP benefits at online retailers (although a much-delayed pilot is now underway). Undocumented populations and other vulnerable groups may be hesitant to participate in at-home services. If communities need to move to a delivery-based or alternative food distribution models, we must ensure that SNAP customers and other vulnerable groups have the means to participate in these alternative supply chains.

There has been a lot of coverage in recent weeks about the difficult reality for low-wage workers in this country whose employers do not provide paid sick leave. This puts these workers – many of whom provide food and healthcare services to their communities – in the impossible situation of having to choose between their own health and employment. There is less coverage, however, about the equally critical questions regarding how we ensure equity in access to food as our communities and our country continue to confront the coronavirus.

There is less coverage about the equally critical questions regarding how we ensure equity in access to food as our communities and our country continue to confront the coronavirus.

Fortunately, some community groups, food bank associations, school districts and policymakers have started to take action. Some organizations are working quickly to expand access to food-related services and build more flexibility into the system to ensure that all Americans are able to feed themselves and their families, even in these uncertain times. In the coming weeks, our team at The Rockefeller Foundation will be reaching out to these groups and our own partners to see how we can best support their efforts. I hope leaders around the country will do the same.