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The Growing Hunger Crisis in America

Health Studies webinar examines how COVID is making hunger an urgent issue for more and more Americans

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The facts are devastating: In 2019, 35 million Americans struggled with hunger. More than 10 million American children did not have enough food on a daily basis. And this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically worsened the hunger crisis, wiping out decades of improvements in food insecurity. Unemployment has soared, and now more than 54 million people across the nation are facing hunger. Projections indicate that 1-in-6 Americans and 1-in-4 children may face food insecurity at some point in 2020.

Last week, to examine the overall state of food insecurity in the United States, American University’s Department of Health Studies hosted "The Impact of COVID19 on Food Insecurity in the United States Webinar." Department of Health Studies Professor and Director Anastasia Snelling joined industry experts Johanna Elsemore and Monica Hake to discuss the growing crisis, its causes, and some creative ways that organizations are working to combat it.

The Impact of COVID 19 on Food Insecurity across the US

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Anastasia Snelling, Johanna Elsemore, and Monica Hake on coronavirus and food insecurity in the United States. 

“In recent months, food inequities have been laid bare as never before due to a myriad of issues,” said Snelling. “Food insecurity is a highly complex issue for which there are many causes and will require many solutions in the months and years to follow. Food insecurity does cut across age, race, and ethnicity. However, there is an over-representation of people of color, and in particular of Black people, among the food insecure population. Food insecurity is an extension of many inequities that result from numerous longstanding, systemic injustices.”

Where 1-in-7 Americans Go for Food

Monica Hake began the discussion with an overview of the hunger crisis and a breakdown of the issues surrounding it. She is a senior research manager at Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization. Feeding America runs 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries. It feeds 40 million people a year, which translates to 1-in-7 Americans.

The consequences are dire, especially for children, says Hake. Not having adequate nutritious food may especially affect children 0-3 years of age, who are going through one of the most critical phases of physical and cognitive development. Older children who are hungry have a difficult time focusing and learning in school. They may struggle to regulate their social and behavioral responses to stressful situations. And their physical health suffers.

COVID: A Perfect Storm

COVID has become a perfect storm for creating both a public health crisis and an economic crisis. The pandemic has increased already existing disparities in healthcare across the country. People with pre-existing conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are at higher risk for serious illness or death from COVID. And on the economic front, unemployment is growing, and more Americans are now underemployed, leading to more food insecurity.

Feeding America is projecting a $10 billion gap between food and need in the next year due to a long list of COVID-related issues: including food chain interruptions, smaller numbers of volunteers, and the real health dangers of close contact with people while distributing food. Competing disasters play a role too, in terms of fires, hurricanes, and tornadoes. The government’s initial response to the crisis was “remarkable,” according to Hake, but more needs to be done. Public support has also been invaluable, but there’s concern about “volunteer fatigue” if the crisis continues.

So what can ordinary people do? Hake says everyone can make a difference. She encourages people to support their local food banks, vote for people who will support anti-hunger initiatives, and advocate for federal nutrition programs.  

No Kid Hungry

Johanna Elsemore spoke next, focusing on childhood hunger in the wake of coronavirus. Elsemore is a media and public affairs manager for No Kid Hungry, a campaign of the national anti-hunger non-profit Share Our Strength. She received her MS in Nutrition Education from American University, where she focused on food justice and health communications.

Since the pandemic struck, Elsemore said, No Kid Hungry has been working with “all hands on deck,” donating $27 million to schools and community programs so far. The challenge has been tremendous. Twenty-two million schoolchildren were eligible for free or reduced priced meals last year. This school year, those numbers will increase. With school closures and hybrid models, many children can’t get those meals at schools. Finding alternative (and safe) delivery systems has been a logistical challenge.

No Kid Hungry’s research last summer revealed that 47 percent of American families are facing hunger. Other groups are faring worse: 56 percent of Latino families, and 53 percent of Black families are facing hunger. Yet the families most at risk of hunger are keeping the rest of the country going: 74 percent of food-insecure parents still employed are working in essential industries like healthcare, food services, and public works. And at the same time, unemployment is skyrocketing. Half of working parents report job loss of the importance of school meals and increased funding for meals programs.

Like Hake, Elsemore says that the issue of hunger overlaps education, health, and economic outcomes. Hungry children, she says, are sick more, recover more slowly, and are hospitalized more frequently. Children struggling with hunger are more likely to drop out of high school. The same children who face food insecurity are often the same children who do not have access to computers or high-speed internet. These factors affect how children can perform in school this year, and they lead to disparities in learning. They affect entire families too. Sixty-six percent of low-income families need to choose between buying food and paying for medicine.

A Solvable Problem

But Elsemore also holds out hope for progress. Childhood hunger is a solvable problem, she says, and the crisis is inspiring innovative solutions. Some districts are using school buses as mobile food delivery units. Other groups are delivering prepackaged frozen meals for a week to families. And struggling restaurants are helping provide food. Elsemore believes that some of these innovations will be so successful that they will continue into the future, even after the pandemic is over.

Snelling looks to future generations, especially American University students, to join the battle against hunger. “Students at American University and in particular those in the health studies, who are studying nutrition education, public health and health promotion, are committed to addressing social justice issues,” she says. “I am proud to say that AU has some of the most engaged socially minded students across the country and will be the future leaders in addressing health and food equity.”