Op-ed: Food insecurity during COVID-19 — what to know and how to help

Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 11:31pm

Food insecurity resources

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CURIS Public Health Advocacy Group

COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed our way of life — restricting our ability to socialize, reducing working hours, causing layoffs for workers and instigating panic through resource scarcity. Alongside growing unemployment and economic insecurity, there has been a significant increase in the number of individuals without access to food. 

In 2018, 37 million people were food insecure in the United States, and according to Feeding America’s estimates, with every 1.1 percent increase in unemployment and 1.5 percent increase in poverty, an additional 3.3 million people will experience food insecurity. The South Michigan Food Bank and The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan are among many pantries state and nationwide who have reported a drastic increase in demand as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With fewer volunteers and an increased demand for affordable food, the changes caused by COVID-19 are putting a strain on larger food banks while forcing smaller local pantries to close down or reduce operations. 

As fears grow due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, our goal at CURIS Public Health Advocacy Group is to raise awareness for the populations most affected by this concern and to provide information on how you can help or seek help in regards to food insecurity during this difficult time.

Who is at risk of food insecurity during COVID-19?

One of the largest affected groups includes workers that were unemployed prior to the outbreak as well as those recently laid off due to COVID-19. Before the outbreak, food insecurity was already prevalent among the unemployed population due to the inability to obtain adequate food resources due to income limitations. As a result, growing unemployment will likely increase food insecurity as the outbreak progresses.

This rising population includes college students who work near campus to support themselves and now have been forced to file for unemployment. More complications arise as many students are reluctant to return home in fear of putting their relatives at risk of the virus, forcing them to rely on already struggling food banks and pantries. If they can return home, they face the complex task of ensuring their household avoids infection while potentially worrying about the secondary stressors they may place on their families in terms of food and financial securities. This task for students is coupled with the additional challenge of transitioning to online schooling. Many K-12 students also lack sufficient food. Nearly 30 million children in the U.S. rely on free or reduced lunch, but social-distancing measures have forced students to stay home.

With diminishing resources straining food banks and food insecurity, we have compiled a resource guide, both general and population-specific for the food insecure. Please use and share these resources if you or someone you know is facing food insecurity.

What can I do to help?

Support for those who are having trouble securing food in these times starts in the grocery store. The phenomenon of panic buying and stockpiling has become an issue; the reality of the empty shelves is not that stores are running out of food and supplies, but that stores are struggling to keep up with the increased demand. This can be especially problematic for those who are a part of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), as their purchase is limited to items with a WIC label. The next time you go to the grocery store, if you are not receiving WIC assistance, please check the label before you buy. The WIC program was designed to provide supplemental foods to low-income women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or postpartum. Stockpiling also prevents those with income limitations from buying food in their price range. 

Recently, there has been news coverage urging people to avoid grocery shopping on the first three days of the month because that’s when low-income families receive their WIC benefits. However, not each state reloads WIC benefits at the beginning of the month. In Michigan, there is no standard date as the reload date varies from the participant. Therefore, it would be more helpful for shoppers to be more conscious of the labels on items and avoid panic buying.   

Another way to support the food-insecure during these pressing times is to help local food banks. These food banks have been hit hard by the pandemic due to a reduction in volunteers and increased demands for food. Feeding America has set up a non-contact option for supporting local food banks with its online COVID-19 Response Fund. All proceeds are used to help secure resources for food banks across the country and by donating money instead of canned goods, Feeding America can better fulfill consumer demand as they work with manufacturers to obtain food goods below retail prices. If you are a resident in Michigan and want to help with COVID-19 in a more general sense, there are various volunteering opportunities.

In the wake of a pandemic, each individual faces their own challenges. However, we must not forget the importance of banding together and serving the populations who are most vulnerable. The fight against hunger is a constant battle — however, we are not alone. There will always be local organizations, food banks and individuals who are helping out in this fight.

Understanding that this is a hard time for everyone, please take the time to check up on family and friends to see if they need support. Only together can we combat food insecurity and alleviate the pressures brought about by this pandemic.

The authors Lily Johnston, Marilyn Li, Prit Patel, Geeta Rastogi and Andrew Wylie from the CURIS Public Health Advocacy Group can be reached at curis-foodcommittee@umich.edu.