As the pandemic throws millions of Americans out of work, cars line up for miles outside food banks across the country. COVID-19 did not create the crisis of hunger in the United States, but it has exposed its root cause. Hint: it’s not a shortage of food.
Even before the pandemic, 35 million Americans were food insecure, meaning they were not able to access and afford enough nutritious food for their families. And many more people were one or two paychecks away from needing help.
In a 2018 survey, the Federal Reserve found that 40 percent of Americans could not afford to pay an unexpected $400 bill. When businesses were forced to shut down, this lack of financial cushion created an economic shock and a dramatic increase in food insecurity. Feeding America estimates that in 2020, some 50 million Americans – one in seven – suffered from food insecurity.
Let’s be clear: the reason we have massive lines at food bank distributions is not because we have a shortage of food supplies. Yes, in the early days of the pandemic we faced short-term shortages when people stockpiled nonperishables and toilet paper. But we have a robust food supply that rebounded quickly to respond to the need.
Millions of Americans are hungry because they lack the means to pay for food.
During COVID-19, we have awakened to racial injustices and systemic inequalities that put certain groups of people at greater risk for losing their jobs, contracting the virus and becoming food insecure. Black and Latinx Americans are more likely than whites to work in low-wage service industries, and are more likely to lose their jobs due to COVID-19. People of color, particularly women, were already the most at risk for food insecurity, financial instability and health disparities prior to COVID-19.
Despite decades of providing charitable food from regional food banks and local food pantries, food insecurity remains a persistent public health problem that the pandemic has only exacerbated.
Food banks have risen to the occasion and are addressing the immediate need for food. To tackle the root causes of food insecurity, however, we need both public and private responses.
We need a stronger government safety net that includes not just federal food assistance, but a minimum wage that enables workers to afford food, housing and other basic needs. We need the business sector to step up, not only with charitable donations, but by paying living wages with benefits so their employees don’t need to rely on charitable food.
There is light at the end of this dark tunnel. Vaccines are rolling out, businesses are beginning to reopen, spring is around the corner and President Joe Biden has signed executive orders to reduce food insecurity during COVID-19.
Importantly, the Biden administration has demonstrated its willingness to tackle the root causes of hunger by proposing a $15 minimum wage. The federal rate of $7.25 has not budged since 2009, which helps explain the financial devastation experienced by millions of low-wage workers during the pandemic, including many essential workers.
Let’s use this extraordinary moment in history to reduce systemic inequalities and ensure that all Americans can afford enough food. Americans are hungry for change.
Katie S. Martin is the executive director of the Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions at Connecticut Food Bank-Foodshare, and the author of “Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries: New Tools to End Hunger,” Island Press, 2021.