In the Absence of Federal Action, US States Scramble to Address Hunger Crisis

As the COVID-19 crisis intensifies, a Depression-era double-whammy food crisis has emerged.

The first crisis is one of food insecurity: Tens of millions of American families are falling into hunger. For single mothers with children under the age of 12, an astonishing 40 percent are now reporting that they are running out of food without the financial ability to purchase more.

Adults are missing meals to keep children fed. But many children are, nevertheless, going hungry. Food banks now routinely report miles-long lines of cars, with drivers waiting for hours to receive bags of produce to tide their families over. The charity Feeding America estimates that the number of food-insecure Americans who will access its food bank network will increase from 37 million at the start of the pandemic to upwards of 54 million over a six-month period. Meanwhile, private donations to food banks are drying up, and the number of Americans volunteering in their local food banks is also declining — a not unsurprising situation given many volunteers are themselves elderly and medically vulnerable.

At the same time, huge amounts of farm produce are going to waste: Farmers are literally destroying crops, meat and dairy supplies that they have no buyers for because schools, restaurants, hotels and other big commercial purchasers are no longer buying produce.

In response, cities, states, the federal government and private aid groups are scrambling for creative ways to keep farms and food banks afloat and needy families fed. These plans range from small local efforts — such as one in the Sacramento area to send out $100,000 worth of micro-level “Fork 2 Farm Relief Grants” to regional farms — to multibillion-dollars efforts, such as the one being pushed by the USDA.

In recent weeks, the USDA has been touting a “farmers to families” distribution program, part of a $19 billion farm rescue package that it rolled out early in the pandemic. It’s a good idea, paying farmers to box up and directly distribute to food banks their unused produce.

But, unfortunately only $3 billion of the $19 billion is going to this. The rest is simply being sent out to farmers, including big agribusiness firms, to keep them solvent during the crisis.

That oughtn’t be a surprise. For years this administration has been willing to prop up big agribusiness — witness the subsidies it gave out during its trade wars with China, many of which went to wealthy investors rather than small farmers — but at the same time has been skeptical of nutritional assistance programs aimed at feeding low-income people.

The Trump administration has worked to slash the number of people eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, arguing that able-bodied adults should have work requirements and stricter time limits imposed on them. This administration has also implemented public charge rules aimed at excluding immigrants from a range of programs, including SNAP, and it has argued that states and counties should no longer be given waivers to allow more generous enrollment criteria in SNAP than those detailed in federal regulations.

While the numbers of those enrolled in SNAP have grown as poverty has exploded in the past couple of months, GOP senators have made clear they oppose increasing the actual value of the assistance given to enrollees.

Meanwhile, Democratic senators and state governments have been working to craft their own programs that might better, and more fairly, meet the enormous need of this moment.

At the federal level, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee, recently unveiled the Food Bank Access to Farm Fresh Produce Act, which would provide $8 billion in block grants to food banks in states with large fruit and vegetable farming concerns. That money would, in turn, then be spent on direct purchases from local farms — and on the equipment, such as trucks, needed to effectively distribute it.

But, while the Senate ponders this and other next steps, at the state level, political leaders have already begun implementing their own programs. Thus far no state has been more ambitious than California: Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to use a combination of moneys from FEMA, as well as state and local funds, to employ unemployed restaurant workers to cook food and distribute it to vulnerable elderly residents who have been exposed to the virus or have a compromised immune system, and whose incomes are less than 600 percent of the poverty line.

The state also rushed through a $20 million emergency grant designed to get hundreds of thousands of boxes filled with fresh produce out to hungry families. And California is now contracting directly with farmers to get food into food banks and is, in addition, giving $365 debit cards for food purchases to families whose children are enrolled in the free and reduced school lunch program — a commitment that will cost the state $1.4 billion.

It isn’t only in the Golden State, however, that these innovations are underway. Nor is it only in Democratic-led states.

New York is now buying food directly from 2,100 farms to distribute to 50 overstretched food banks.

In Massachusetts, some food banks are buying farmland and leasing that to farmers, who will pay not in cash but in crops that will be distributed to food bank clients.

In New Jersey, the Department of Agriculture is going to start direct purchases from farmers to distribute food to needy families.

And in deep-red Utah, the state’s Farm Bureau has launched a public-private partnership to keep farmers solvent by purchasing crops that can be distributed to needy families.

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, the economic damage it causes is wreaking havoc on the lives of tens of millions in the U.S. and billions overseas. The United Nations estimates 1.5 billion people could lose their sources of income over the duration of the crisis. That’s fully half of the world’s wage earners — and, if it actually happens, it would represent a catastrophe on an absolutely unthinkable scale. Here in the U.S., more than one-quarter of workers in some states are already now jobless, and nationally that number is now one in five.

It will take years to dig out of this economic hole, and while we are doing that digging, securing the food supply for the vast numbers who have lost their income, as well as securing income for those who grow our food, will be critical challenges. The states are working on their own solutions. But make no mistake, protecting the United States, as well as the broader world, from a pandemic of hunger unleashed by the viral pandemic is a struggle that demands the full and effectively focused resources of the federal government.