Unanswered Questions, Obvious Answers: Hunger in the Age of COVID

As COVID-19 continues to sweep through our country, we are witnessing devastation and tragedy in every city, county, neighborhood and community. Among the most devastating and tragic is that millions of Americans are facing hunger, unable to access food to feed themselves and their families. 

Nearly three months into this unprecedented crisis, we still face more questions than answers:

Why is food rotting in farmers’ fields while millions of Americans are facing food insecurity?

Why are we forcing vulnerable people to line up for hours and place themselves in unsafe conditions to receive vital nutrition assistance?

Why are policymakers hesitating to use every tool at their disposal to ensure that all Americans can feed themselves and their families?

Food insecurity is not new in this country. Prior to COVID-19, nearly 40 million people did not know where they would find their next meal. In the wake of the pandemic, that number has risen to over 60 million and is still climbing.

Too often overlooked in this staggering statistic are the untold stories of women—single mothers, Native Americans, veterans, college students, seniors, those in rural communities and others—who are doing their best to survive, and eventually, recover.

What can be done?

The Obvious Solution: SNAP

The good news is that we already have a robust and highly effective federal program to address hunger in this country: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Strengthening SNAP is the most meaningful way to help those facing hunger by providing cash assistance so that everyone in need has immediate access to food, with dignity, and without exposing themselves to danger or putting their dietary or nutritional needs to the side.

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Obviously, food pantries are on the front lines to deliver what they can to those facing hunger, but it is equally obvious that charity alone cannot meet the ongoing—and growing—needs of all those who are struggling, regardless of how much food is donated and distributed.

Only the federal government has the resources and infrastructure to meet this need.

And importantly, boosting SNAP will not only help millions of people put food on their tables; it will also stimulate the economy and contribute to a faster national recovery. In fact, economists estimate that during a recession, every SNAP dollar generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity.

So why haven’t Congress and the Trump administration moved heaven and earth to get SNAP to all those Americans who need it?

Political Football During a Pandemic 

For months, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and our partners in the anti-hunger community have been imploring policymakers to prioritize critical improvements to SNAP such as increasing benefit amounts and allowing Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards to be used for online grocery purchases. The stakes could not be higher—SNAP must be accessible for all who need it.

As governors from both parties scramble to secure permission from USDA to loosen barriers to SNAP in their states, some were rebuffed outright, others received permission only after long delays, and still others had to compromise requests under threat of absolute rejection. (Surprise: California was one of these.)

If the House of Representatives attempts to move the ball forward for struggling Americans, they are tackled by the Senate and blocked by USDA.

Earlier this month, the House finally passed a bill that aims to boost SNAP benefits, suspend the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) harmful rule change proposals, extend free meals for families with children through the summer months and temporarily allow SNAP to be used to buy hot foods. But this bill is a non-starter in the Senate, where Mitch McConnell and his cronies continue to sabotage common sense solutions.

Meanwhile, the administration is being consistent in one area: making matters worse. 

We at MAZON are particularly appalled that, even in the midst of a global pandemic, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue is trying to appeal a federal injunction to advance his ideologically-driven rule change to restrict SNAP for almost one million Americans who he deems undeserving of assistance. This is clearly as unacceptable as it is dangerous.

Unanswered Questions, Obvious Answers: Hunger in the Age of COVID SNAP
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue at a roundtable discussion with school nutrition professionals in San Antonio, Texas, on Jan. 17. (U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr)

In recent weeks, USDA has been flaunting its new $1.2 billion Farmers to Families program as a “new” and “innovative” way to address food waste and hunger.

However, in truth, it is a misguided approach, which has already created confusion, chaos and inequity. It seems to be a distraction for the agency to avoid the obvious need to strengthen SNAP and other federal nutrition programs.

It would be far better for USDA to focus on connecting more people to SNAP by addressing persistent barriers like stigma, shame, and misinformation.

Women Bearing the Brunt

For activists like us, it comes as no surprise that those who are most affected by these hostile actions are women—working women on the front lines as the majority of service workers, women who are single heads of households, women who are newly unemployed as businesses shutter and those in pink collar administrative positions are laid off.

Unanswered Questions, Obvious Answers: Hunger in the Age of COVID SNAP
“For activists like us, it comes as no surprise that those who are most affected by these hostile actions are women.” (allison fomich / Flickr)

Hunger in the wake of COVID-19 is being felt acutely by women across every sector and in every community. Indeed, earlier this month, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research labeled the current situation a first-ever “she-cession”—since a majority of the jobs lost in April were held by women. 

And as is often the case, women of color and other particularly vulnerable populations are hardest hit by lob losses, school closures, limited childcare options, and—of course—economic hardship, all of which result in food insecurity.

In fact, a new report found staggering rates of food insecurity among the one in five college students who are also parents, and the one in ten who are single mothers. For these women, access to programs like SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is critical but often burdensome and sometimes out of reach. For these college students, finances will continue to be drastically impacted as this crisis prolongs, and it is critical to ensure they can access the federal nutrition programs to which they are entitled.

We also know that women serving in the U.S. military are struggling in greater numbers than their male counterparts. Recent data from the COVID-19 Military Support Initiative indicates that women have been working more hours, shifting their hours to accommodate childcare, and/or reducing hours due to childcare needs.

Prior to the pandemic, military spouses—the majority of whom are women—faced a 24 percent unemployment rate, and now an estimated 18 percent have lost their job or are unable to work.

Shamefully, we know that many of these families find themselves ineligible for SNAP, which often forces them to turn in desperation to food pantries that operate on or near every military base in the country.

Again, we have to ask: Why are our leaders not responding?

It’s Not Rocket Science

This pandemic has exposed the gaping holes and inequities in our country’s safety net, and we can no longer ignore them, nor can we allow them to be ignored by our policymakers. 

SNAP has a unique value in that it provides support to anyone who needs it without judgment, showing recipients both dignity and respect, and providing live-saving benefits that keep Americans healthy, safe, and well-nourished.

As Congressman Adam Schiff recently said in a conversation with MAZON, “It doesn’t require rocket science to figure this out. It requires leadership.”

Our policymakers must find the courage, the wisdom, and the compassion to strengthen our country’s nutrition safety net as well as address the systemic issues that lead millions of people to need the safety net in the first place.

The questions remain, and we will keep demanding answers until we are convinced that our policymakers are responding to this unprecedented crisis with wisdom and leadership.

About and

Abby J. Leibman is the president & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and was a co-founder of the California Women’s Law Center. Inspired by Jewish values and ideals, MAZON is a national advocacy organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel. Abby has received, among other honors, the California Women Lawyer's Faye Stender Award, Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles' Ernestine Stalhut Award, UCSD's Top 100 Influential Alumni Award, USC Law Center's Public Interest Advocate Award and the So. California Employer Round Table's Carol F. Schiller Award. She has a J.D. from Hastings College of Law and graduated magna cum laude from U.C. San Diego with a B.A. in political science.
Liza Lieberman is director of communications at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, promoting the organization’s policy priorities and strengthening its role and reputation as an authoritative voice in the anti-hunger field.