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Rural and Native Communities Are Hard Hit by COVID-Era Food Insecurity

The pandemic has caused tremendous suffering for rural and Native people as well as youth and people with disabilities.

Vegetables are repacked into boxes from the Hoosier Hills Food Bank before arriving at Pantry 279 in Ellettsville, Indiana, to help those experiencing food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Nonie Woolf, a retired public health nutritionist and chair of Food Access and Sustainability Team Blackfeet, is excited. By October, she says, the program’s Ō´yō´•ṗ´ on Wheels, a refrigerated truck whose name means “we are eating,” will deliver groceries directly to hungry and food-insecure residents of the eight communities that comprise Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation.

The need is enormous, Woolf told Truthout. But it isn’t new.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, she says, median annual household income on the reservation — home to approximately 11,000 people — was $30,762, with more than a third of residents (37.1 percent) living in poverty. More than two-thirds (69 percent) had either gone hungry or experienced food insecurity — defined as having unreliable access to nutritious food — in 2017.

Then COVID hit and Ō´yō´•ṗ´ Food Pantry — established in 2019 to meet the nutritional needs of low-income residents — went into overdrive.

In the month of July alone, the pantry distributed 52,770 pounds of food, more than three times the amount distributed in February, and delivered hot meals to more than 100 elders unable to travel to Browning, where the pantry is located.

“There’s a sense of community here,” Woolf says. “People help each other. They share rides, food and information. Our goal at Ō´yō´•ṗ´ is to fend off hunger so they can cope with the other things in their lives.”

Ō´yō´•ṗ´on Wheels, she says, will traverse the reservation’s 1.5 million acres with weekly drop-offs to some of the community’s poorest residents. “The plan is to take fresh and frozen food to people who we’re working to identify: homeless families, grandparents caring for grandkids, kids in foster care, and unaccompanied minors living doubled up with friends or extended family. We also hope to reach out to people who never had financial problems before, but now, because of COVID, are hurting.”

Food Banks Scramble to Meet New Needs

Indeed, the number of people who are hurting, not just on the reservation but throughout the U.S., is staggering. With millions unemployed, coupled with the largest spike in food prices since February 1974, food banks throughout the country are scrambling to meet the needs of the hungry.

Children have been particularly hard-hit, with millions who’d eaten free or low-cost meals in school suddenly stuck at home. Caretakers are often at their wits’ end — not only overseeing online learning, but also juggling jobs and other community and family responsibilities. They often have no idea where to turn for food assistance.

Confusion is particularly widespread because the two government programs that were established to keep child hunger at bay — outdoor school meal distribution and the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) Program — have been beset by bureaucratic snafus and roadblocks.

School meal distribution entered a chaotic period when schools closed in March, and within days, administrators had to apply for up to eight separate waivers in the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to dispense curbside meals, distribute food from bus stops, or arrange drop-offs at student homes. Additional waivers were required to allow food to be picked up by parents or guardians or to hand out meals without first verifying the income of recipients.

These waivers expired just as the 2020-2021 school year was about to begin — or, in some places, when schools were in the first weeks of instruction. And while the waivers were later extended to the end of the calendar year, the back-and-forth forced school staff and anti-hunger activists to mount an emergency campaign to keep the waivers in place.

Director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center, Crystal FitzSimons, told Truthout that as the new school year rolls out, schools are working hard to figure out how best to operate food programs.

“When schools closed last spring, there was no time to plan,” FitzSimons said. “Meal distribution programs had to operate in ways they’d never operated before. These programs don’t turn on a dime. It takes administrative oversight to get meal programs up and running.”

Then there’s the Pandemic EBT program. P-EBT provides approximately $5.70 per child per day in additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to low-income families whose kids were previously eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. “Pandemic EBT is not available unless schools are closed for five consecutive days. How does this work for kids doing hybrid learning? What does it mean for kids whose schools have delayed opening to get things together?” FitzSimons asks. “Some of the biggest issues occur because things keep changing. Schools initially thought they’d be closed for three or four weeks, but ended up being shuttered for the rest of the academic year. Food programs need to be as flexible as possible to be able to respond to needs that pop up, or that exist in a particular place at a particular time.”

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations at the School Nutrition Association, agrees, and told Truthout that school meal providers are struggling to meet the nutritional needs of three specific cohorts: distance learners, hybrid learners and those who are attending school in-person five days a week.

“Schools need to determine how to serve kids who come into school twice a week and need grab-and-go bags for the other days; kids who are fully remote; and kids who may need to see social distancing protocols in place so that they can eat in the cafeteria or in their classrooms. New cleaning regimens also need to be established,” she says.

Another problem, Pratt-Heavner adds, is that immigrant parents (regardless of whether they are undocumented or not) may be hesitant to fill out applications for school meals and P-EBT for fear of breaking a federal rule on receipt of public benefits. This, she says, is true even though their children have been hard-hit by pandemic food insecurity, since many immigrants prefer to remain under the radar rather than expose their households to possible government scrutiny.

Hunger Remains Persistent

“Food hardship is persistent,” Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Research & Action Center, told Truthout. “In July, 10 million more people were unemployed than in February. People who never thought they’d be in need are applying for food stamps.”

In fact, within the first three months of the pandemic, more than 6 million people had been added to the food stamp rolls. What’s more, Vollinger reports that since the additional $600 a week Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program was allowed to lapse, jobless people who had previously been deemed “over income” for food stamps have been flocking to apply for whatever help has become available.

The need is particularly acute in rural areas. According to Feeding America, 2.3 million rural Americans currently lack adequate nutrition or are food-insecure.

Nikki Hannon, director of the Parent Community Outreach Program for Browning Public Schools in Montana, is working hard to ensure that the 2,000 kids enrolled in the district do not become part of this statistic. Like Woolf, she is pleased that Ō´yō´•ṗ´ on Wheels will soon be up and running, but says that low-income kids in pre-K to sixth grade have been receiving weekly weekend food deliveries since the pandemic began through an effort called āissṗoōmmoǒtsiiyō•ṗ (“We Help Each Other”).

Older students, all of whom are learning remotely during this academic quarter, can get porch deliveries or pick up food at their schools. “It’s not ideal,” Hannon says. “Before the pandemic, they could come in and choose whatever they wanted. Now they can’t do that. They have to take pre-made, ready-to-go boxes that someone else packed. They get what they get, but at least it’s something.”

Another issue, she told Truthout, is convincing people that it’s okay to ask for help. “The chronically needy have figured out the support networks, but not everyone listens to the radio, reads the newspaper or is on Facebook, and they may not know what benefits are available.”

In the meantime, mobile food distribution remains spotty at best, a problem that has a profound impact on people with disabilities.

Problems Arranging Deliveries

“Even before the pandemic, there were significant unaddressed barriers for people with mobility issues or other disabilities in accessing food,” says Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center. Some of the issues are practical, like limited access to transportation in rural and suburban areas, but urban residents can also experience difficulties. “Public transportation may not go near the store with the best prices,” she says. “Or it may not stop anywhere near the food pantry.”

The pandemic has made everything harder since people who once got rides from family members or friends may no longer be welcomed into cars due to fears about contracting the virus. In addition, a number of food pantries have closed because they were run by volunteers who are no longer willing or able to travel to the site. “In some areas, charitable food programs disappeared overnight, and while there have been a lot of heroic efforts to get food to people, those who lack transportation or who can’t stand in a miles-long line to get a bag or box of groceries, are left without,” Waxman told Truthout.

Programs that either ship or deliver food, she adds, have also hit snags, and while she says there is a pipeline between challenge and innovation, red flags are nonetheless apparent. “For example,” she says, “there are no last-mile deliveries in parts of Alaska, so the recipient of a food parcel has to figure out a way to get to and from the post office to get a shipment.”

Those with mobility limitations are particularly hamstrung. “In the best of times, people with disabilities often face grave challenges,” Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, told Truthout. “The only variable almost as great as poverty in determining who goes hungry is disability status. Disability is an even greater obstacle if there are language barriers.”

Still, people do what they have to do, whether that means bringing a child to a food pantry to translate, standing in line for long periods or begging for rides.

John (who only provided his first name to Truthout), 57, says that he visits a different food pantry in Brooklyn, New York, every day of the week. A lawyer who lost his livelihood when the courts closed six months ago, he says that he gets food for himself as well as for four elderly neighbors. “The older people can’t stand in line, so I do that,” he says. “Yesterday I got a can of applesauce and gave it to the lady next door. She is going to make applesauce cake later today. She’ll give pieces to everyone in the building. We help each other that way. It’s nice that we’ve gotten to know each other, that we all support each other and share what we have.”

John then pauses for a few minutes before continuing. “I still can’t wait for the pandemic to be over,” he says. “This has been rough. I never imagined that I’d be in line for free food.”

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