EDITOR NOTE: 14 Million American children are missing meals on a regular basis--that’s three times more than during the Great Recession; five times greater than what we saw before the pandemic. As the author explains, access to food has been problematic since before the COVID-infected economy. But what the article misses is that this condition we’re in is what happens when the cost of food is deliberately excluded from the Federal Reserve’s inflation radar. And it’s going to get much worse in the near future as the Fed aims to raise the inflation rate in order to meet its 2% average goal, food costs excluded. If food was already barely affordable to a large segment of Americans before the Fed pursued its pro-inflationary course, how many more people will starve once it finally achieves its goal?
COVID-19 started as a public health and economic crisis, but it’s also created America’s worst hunger crisis in generations.
Today, 14 million children are regularly missing meals — three times more than during the Great Recession and five times more than before the pandemic.
It’s even worse for Latino and Black families, whose rates of nutrition insecurity have spiked to 25% and 30%.
In the world’s wealthiest country, this is unconscionable.
Meanwhile we’ve seen graphic pictures of farmers dumping truckloads of milk, onions, beans, eggs and more because restaurants and industrial kitchens aren’t buying and farmers can’t afford to harvest and transport the food to those going hungry.
Even before the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated 37 million people in America struggled with hunger and nutrition. The Centers for Disease Control reports 76% of people killed by COVID-19 had at least one underlying condition, most of which were diet-related. Diet-related diseases also fuel skyrocketing health care costs, which rose from 5% to 28% of the federal budget in the past 50 years.
In a country blessed with incredible natural resources that produce more than enough food to feed every single American, what is wrong with this picture? Without question the causes are complicated and vested interests in the food system make it easier to maintain the status quo rather than rebuild a failing system.
But to provide every American man, woman and child with access to nutritious, affordable food, we must strive for long-term, systemic changes. The crisis we face calls for unified, urgent bipartisan action.
Better coordinate relief efforts
First, we need more integrated public and private safety nets to make nutritious food affordable and accessible to everyone. We have proven approaches, including federal nutrition assistance like SNAP and WIC. Local food banks and national school meal programs still feed millions of children a day. And health care companies are piloting “produce prescription” initiatives to subsidize fruit and vegetable purchases.
But these efforts aren't coordinated. As a result, too many families slip through the cracks. For no child to go hungry or malnourished, these essential services must be reimagined to work in concert.
Second, we must do more to reinvigorate regional food systems and build diverse, agile local food chains that serve all communities. The current nationwide food system relies too heavily on highly specialized, long-distance supply chains, which as we saw this spring when grocery shelves were suddenly emptied are deeply vulnerable to unexpected shocks.
We have already taken steps that make our food system more balanced and we can expand these initiatives. For example, we can provide greater incentives for schools, prisons and other public institutions to buy food that stimulates local economies.
We can encourage the growth of state and local “food policy councils” that support farmers and workers and ensure their area’s food system meets the needs of all its communities. And we can invest more in regional infrastructure that helps smaller farmers access larger markets.
Adopt livable wage in food industry
Third, we should advance economic and racial equity by promoting livable wages throughout the food supply chain. Today, food system workers are so underpaid, they’re twice as likely as other workers to need nutrition assistance to feed themselves and their families.
Government and the private sector must work together to address wage inequality across the food system. We should also expand and accelerate major reforms undertaken over the past two decades to ensure agricultural assistance reaches Black, indigenous and other people of color, who were excluded from programs meant to help farmers during the Great Depression.
Perhaps most surprising, many of these changes enjoy more support than we’ve ever seen. When we served in government, none of us imagined that major food companies would call for more federal funding for nutrition assistance, or that teachers unions would advocate for school meals on behalf of their colleagues in cafeterias.
Our food system is a melting pot of many different interests — rural and urban, community and industry, institutional and individual — but the magnitude of this crisis has brought together unlikely partners to demand real change.
Historically, America has addressed hunger and malnutrition by using government as the intermediary between private producers and people in need; while this public-private partnership might need to be updated and reformed, the basic concept is still relevant today.
COVID-19 didn’t create nutrition insecurity, but it’s made clear the imperative to act: We have a chance to give every child in America access to nourishing food — not just today, but every day — and to deliver greater health and equity throughout the entire food system.
Originally posted on USA Today