As the country reels through the worst job market in decades and a deep recession caused by the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus across the country, millions of Americans have resorted to their local food banks, leading to hours-long lines at distribution centers nationwide.
Almost one tenth of American household didn’t have enough food in a given week during the pandemic, Bloomberg reported, which is more than double the figures reported prior to the pandemic and the highest since 1995, the year the government started collecting comparable data on the subject.
With the shutdown of the U.S. economy, along came widespread unemployment. In May, the unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent, the worst since the Great Depression. This number dropped to 8.4 percent by August, but it is still almost double the 4.4 percent reported in March when the virus first started. And families who found themselves without jobs and less sources of income now were unable to afford going to grocery stores even with the federal government’s $600 weekly supplement to unemployment insurance, turning to various food safety net programs for assistance.
Food banks have experienced large surges in demand and hunger-relief organizations have struggled to keep up supplying food to so many families. According to The Guardian, the number of people lining up at distribution points in Phoenix, Arizona, has tripled during the pandemic while pantries in Massachusetts have increased distribution by more than 800 percent.
As the coronavirus continues to ravage the country, these volunteer-based organizers are also having a hard to find people to work shifts as most helpers were senior citizens, a group who is at most risk of contracting COVID-19. And as more Americans are affected financially by the virus, these organizations have received less and less donations. Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, reported a 64 percent decrease in donations in March.
Thousands of American citizens and residents have also applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp program, which provides financial assistance to low-income individuals and families to purchase nutritious foods at stores. The government has changed the rules regarding this program to assist more families and several states have issued emergency supplements, none of which have shown to stop Americans from experiencing hunger. The U.S.D.A. announced that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits will increase on Oct. 1, but there are still questions on whether this will be enough.
The federal government has also supported food banks with over $6 billion in food, among other, resources and implemented Pandemic E.B.T. program, which provides assistance to families with children who have temporarily lost access to free or reduced-price school meals, relieving some pressure.
But unlike other food crises, such as those perpetuated during the Dust Bowl, people are going hungry in America not because there is a lack of food, but rather because there is a lack of infrastructure to redirect resources to those who need it most.
America’s food distribution network is a delicate and linear system which involves farmers, food service producers and distributors, packaged goods companies and grocery stores. When the pandemic hit, it disrupted each part of the network in varying ways, according to a study by McKinsey and Company.
Farmers, packaged goods companies and grocery stores in America lost a large amount of workers who were hesitant to return to work due to the looming threat of a virus while others had to send their employees home as some tested positive, interrupting the harvest season and production lines. At the same time, distribution routes dried up as workers in that step of the supply chain were affected in the same manner, leaving farmers with no way to send their products to packagers or grocery stores. Many ultimately had to kill livestock or destroy produce, which caused not only a significant loss to their bottom line but also a great waste.
Food service distributors were faced with another bottleneck. With the closure of restaurants, there was nowhere to send all food they received from farmers who maintained production rates. Eventually, incoming orders had to be canceled and food put into storage.
Food insecurity is projected to increased as cases continue to surge around the country, according to several hunger-relief organizations across the country, and the situation won’t improve without legislation that provides further assistance to Americans.
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