COVID 19 ripped a very small bandage off the wounds of issues that plague Americans. The pandemic has exposed social drivers that determine inequities of what government, institutions, systems and people need to address. Even as major cities reopen including Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, changing the daily lives of so many, hunger remains an inescapable daily reality for millions of Americans.

Food insecurity in this country was a tremendous issue pre-COVID, as in 2019, 35 million American households struggled with hunger. The problem is even more critical, as the solution is no closer and even exacerbated by the pandemic.

Due to COVID 19, job loss and financial instability had a direct impact on the rise of households experiencing hunger and food insecurity. According to Feeding America, an estimated 45 million adults and 15 million children were food insecure in 2020. That number is expected to be 42 million adults and 13 million children throughout 2021. 

The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as the lack of access, at times, to enough food for all household members. Every day families, senior citizens, veterans and homeless people experience true hunger going without meals or eating scarce meals.

President Joe Biden in March signed into law the American Rescue Plan outlining $1.9 trillion in aid with $12 billion earmarked for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It will increase monthly stipends for participating families by 15% for families with children and will help continue the Pandemic EBT program that is helping feed children who are out of school. 

President Biden recently announced “since we took office hunger rates have dropped 43%.” While this is true, the drop in hunger is not all together attributed to the new administration.  Several factors have aided the decline in hunger.

The unemployment rate has dropped from 14.8% to 6.1%. There have been increases in food stamp benefits, one at the end of the last administration on December 29.Several rounds of stimulus have gone out to Americans. 

Yet, a large portion of senior citizens are food insecure and often have to decide between paying for medications or buying additional food. The average food stamp payment to seniors is $105 monthly;  it is inadequate for a household of one.

The high number of people who needed food during the pandemic has resulted in people and organizations starting their own pantries and volunteering time to ensure people are fed.

I am one of them.

I started Melba House Blessing Box on April 14 of last year in front of my home and have helped feed over 2,500 people– mostly homeless and senior citizens in Dallas. At the beginning of the pandemic, I saw the need for additional methods of food distribution other than long lines of cars waiting at food banks for boxes of food. So last spring, my family and I used an old desk, painted it, secured it to our white picket fence in front of our home and added non-perishable food.

My daughter added a post with pictures of the box to her social media. By the morning of April 15 the box was overflowing with donations of food and toiletries. It has continued to grow since that day funded by monetary and in-kind donations, as we have partnered with local organizations to continue to supply basic needs and resources. Over this year our box has been a distribution site for food, toiletries, clothes, school supplies, masks, hand sanitizer, voter registration cards and books.

In addition to supplying other needs and resources, Melba House Blessing Box operates on “take what you need, leave what you can” policy. Other blessing boxes, food pantries, and social services have sprung up around the country to address the extreme need of food.

What I observed firsthand is that often those who are food insecure don’t buy needed medications so they can buy meat (not distributed at food pantries) or extra food.

Feeding America reports that 84% of families they serve buy the cheapest and not most nutritious foods. Food insecure people survive on beans, rice, or sandwiches until the next paycheck comes in—if at all.

The closer families get to receiving that paycheck, the smaller portions become and often parents go without their portions so that children or the elderly will have something to eat. Parents don’t always have a meal, so they can give it to their children.  Many children attend school and are hungry until they eat lunch.

As schools across the nation closed campuses and went to remote schooling, educators addressed the fact that some kids were not able to eat nutritious meals at home and went into action to begin or continue supplying meals.

To further reduce hunger in children the USDA has taken this a step further. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont)  and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN)  have introduced legislation that would create a permanent universal school meals program to provide children with free breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack, thus eliminating school lunch debt once and for all.

The USDA recently expanded The Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 that would expand and make permanent a program to provide  free lunches through the 2021-2022 school year. It would provide free food for all children, regardless of their family income levels.

Some school districts across the country, such as Dallas Independent School District, have already adapted a free breakfast and lunch for all students’ for students under the age of 18.The Dallas district started this free meal program in 2013 and since then have fed well over 1.2 million children.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Dallas district quickly went into action and in an effort to ensure children were still eating while learning at home they started the “Curb Side Meals” This effort was widely replicated throughout the United States, including in Montana and New York State

Charter schools can participate in free meal programs for kids and private schools have options to adapt fee meals

The highest rates of hunger are experienced in Southern states. Mississippi is highest with 18.7% rates of hunger for families, Louisiana at 18.3% and Alabama at 18.1%. But northern and Midwestern states including Maine has a hunger rate at 16.4%, and Oklahoma has a 15.2% rate.

Hunger affects populations of color at higher rates, with African Americans at 19.1 %t — two and a half times the rate for white non-Hispanic households at 7.9 %. Hispanics have a hunger rate of 15.2% percent — two times the rate for white non-Hispanic households.

The primary root causes of hunger and food insecurity are low paying jobs, job instability and food deserts. According to Health People 2020 food insecurity is a key issue in the Economic Stability domain of the Social Determinants of Health.  The social determinants that drive poverty are, Economic Stability, Education, Health and Health Care, Neighborhood and Built Environment, Social and Community Context. A nutritious diet impacts every determinant listed.  If you are food insecure and hungry each area will suffer.

To begin addressing food insecurity, mandating that employees earn a livable wage is critical. If   

the average family eats the three meals and two snacks daily as recommended by the USDA,  that would cost a family of four, $146 weekly or $7,592 annually.

The top three U.S. employers are Wal Mart, YUM Brands (owners of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell) and McDonalds, where the average annual base pay for an employee is $23,000. To meet the USDA food requirements would cost 33% of annual income.

The average income for low income family of four is $44,700. The price of food has also risen this year because of pandemic, increased shipping cost and supply chain interruptions.

Food deserts exist in almost all areas of America where access to fresh produce is two bus rides from home. The USDA defines a food desert as a community that lacks grocery stores and farmers markets within a convenient distance. Food deserts have many convenience stores that sell mostly processed foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients.

Many grocery store chains are not in low income areas; so residents have to take a bus to a store that may be miles away and then carry their groceries back home. That is not always possible if you are elderly, have a disability or work long hours.

All Americans need adequate access to food regardless of whether they live in urban or rural areas. Addressing poverty in America can begin with adequate incomes, grocery stores in all neighborhoods, and community gardens to even begin to limit hunger and food insecurity.

More free pantries—like the Blessing Box—need to be available in neighborhoods so that disability and age are not factors in going hungry. Everyone should be able to know where they can easily get enough food when needed. 

Lisa Padilla is CEO of Melba House Blessing Box Food Pantry and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.