The State of Hunger During COVID-19 in the U.S.: How the Pandemic Made Food Insecurity Worse


“The first and most consequential change that happened to SNAP at the beginning of the pandemic was to make the benefits much more generous to all eligible households, not just those with the lowest income,” says Dr. Bauer. From April through September of 2020, $8.4 billion in combined SNAP and P-EBT benefits were redeemed per month—an increase of 86.4% compared to the same period in 2019, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.

A huge benefit to many, these programs were not without some discrepancies. For example, the temporary emergency expansion of SNAP benefits in 2020 to make more households eligible actually impeded access for the lowest-income families, according to Dr. Bauer. Because they already received the maximum available benefit, they were not eligible for anything more—meaning they didn’t get any increased pandemic aid from them.

“What ended up happening is that the ‘better off’ SNAP-eligible families got a huge boost in benefits and the ‘worse off’ families saw no benefit increases,” says Dr. Bauer.

To supplement the federal aid, many members of marginalized communities have come up with their own imaginative solutions to help alleviate hunger on the local level. According to Dr. Bowen, the FIRST study has “found struggles and hardships, but also narratives of resilience, creativity, and togetherness,” she says. “Although federal food assistance programs were the most critical to families’ survival, food pantries and other private and nonprofit forms of support—often small-scale—were essential stopgaps when the federal programs were insufficient or unavailable.”

This was evident last summer in North Carolina, where La Semilla, a group of immigrant community organizers, distributed almost 800 boxes of fresh produce a week to mostly undocumented families living in mobile home parks throughout Durham and Raleigh. One undocumented mother of five lost her job at McDonald’s the same month her husband was detained by ICE.

“People like this call me to ask for money, but I don’t have it,” La Semilla organizer Ivan Almonte tells SELF. “But I can find food, and food is what the people won’t lack anymore.”

Organizers teamed up with local supermarkets to bring boxes of fresh food to COVID-19 testing sites and community vaccination events, providing a sharper lens into necessary changes around public health and mutual aid. For Almonte, it’s a subtle resistance against a system that does not serve all communities equally.

“It was important that others [outside the immigrant community] saw with their own eyes the reality of the situation: that people needed food and this was the place to give it out,” Almonte says.

Back in Kentucky, Lynne found relief in weekly boxes of food from CANE Kitchen, or Community Agriculture Nutritional Enterprises, in Letcher County. The food pantry uses funding from the USDA Summer Food Program to distribute food boxes to families and serve lunches to children every summer when school is out. During the pandemic, when in-person classes were closed, the free and reduced lunch program at school were also unavailable for children, making food pantries even more crucial then too. According to CANE board member Valerie Horn, the pantry served 700,000 food boxes in the summer of 2020. In comparison, the pantry served 700 total boxes in 2014, the program’s first year.

Through the USDA school lunch waiver extension program, CANE Kitchen received $2.2 million in 2020, compared to the $30,000 it received in 2019. It used the extra money to purchase local food from farmers, including mustard greens, sweet potatoes and fruits to cook and can, along with occasional fresh protein options, which it provided to those who needed it with no questions asked.



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