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Protecting hungry children during the fight for racial justice

Protecting hungry children during the fight for racial justice
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Peaceful Black Lives Matter protests began in Minneapolis after George Floyd was killed there while in police custody on May 25. George Floyd joins an appallingly long list of more than 1200 black Americans who have been killed by the police in the past five years. 

Protests against police brutality have spread rapidly to dozens of U.S. cities and across the globe. This critical fight for racial justice is happening amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, which is disproportionately impacting racial and ethnic minorities. An unintended consequence is that it is undermining access to food for low-income and minority children, who already face record high levels of food insecurity or lack of reliable access to healthy food, including infant formula

Prior to COVID-19, food insecurity affected one in six children. In the next year, one in four children are expected to experience food insecurity. Food insecurity is a major public health concern for children because of the toll it takes on physical and mental health problems as well as school performance. Left unchecked, this rising food insecurity will surely exacerbate long standing health disparities.

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A key threat to children’s food insecurity during the protests is the looting (often instigated by outside agitators) that has destroyed businesses. As of June 1, at least 255 businesses across the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota) were vandalized. More than half of the nation’s governors called in the National Guard and a variety of businesses and community buildings have reported extensive damage. The Twin Cities’ most vulnerable communities endured the most damage — including the loss of some of their only retail food outlets

As former President Obama stated, he saw an “elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood has been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back.” It may take at least a year, if not decades, for many of these retail food outlets to rebuild, along with other basic needs such as pharmacies, banks, post offices and police stations. These communities were already struggling with poor retail access. Rebuilding will need to occur alongside the reconstruction of countless other basic services for these communities — pharmacies, health clinics, post offices, banks and more. 

Another key threat to children’s food insecurity during the protests is the shuttering of businesses to prevent damage. In Minneapolis, Target, CVS and Walmart closed several of their stores on May 29 — cutting off key food outlets, without a known reopening date. Compounding the loss of retail food businesses and closed food stores, the city of Minneapolis shut down public transit. Target just announced the temporary closing and possibly reduced hours for 200 stores across the country. Suspensions of public transit in many cities made little explicit effort to consider the impact on low-income families. 

A third critical threat to children’s food insecurity is the suspension of meal service distribution sites that were set up to mediate the loss of school meals during school closures resulting from the pandemic. In the initial days of the riots, the Minneapolis and St. Paul School Districts suspended meal service distribution sites on May 29 and Chicago suspended meal service for at least June 1. Other school districts are likely to follow suit if the riots continue. More than 40 million Americans are unemployed due to COVID-19 with disproportionate higher rates among minority communities. Reliance on federal nutrition support right now is high, growing and essential for children.

Before the start of the riots and as a result of COVID-19, many low-income families were already facing considerable hardship accessing food. Now, the resource gaps are even larger and must be addressed during the fight for racial justice. Otherwise, low-income children who are already facing unprecedented levels of food insecurity, significant loss of education due to school closures and a myriad of other challenges resulting from the pandemic will become collateral damage. 

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So, what can be done right now to address the immediate threat of hunger for children living in areas affected by the protests?

The federal government must play a role. Congress can immediately help address growing food insecurity among minority children through the pending Heroes Act, the fourth COVID-19 stimulus bill which has passed the House and will be taken up by the Senate in June. Specifically, Congress should expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — a proven way to reduce food insecurity and poverty. SNAP is by far the largest federal nutrition safety net program serving 38 million people in the U.S. — nearly half of whom are children. However, a real and practical challenge for SNAP households in Minneapolis and other affected communities is where to redeem their benefits given food retail closures.

As a longer-term solution, Congress should also appropriate funding to the national healthy food financing initiative to support the rebuilding of key retail food outlets in riot-damaged areas. This initiative helps retail food outlets overcome the higher costs and initial barriers to serving areas with inequitable access and may help accelerate the rebuilding of critical food sources in impacted communities. In addition, Congress should appropriate funding for capacity building and technical assistance grants and community-based participatory research for riot-damaged communities to engage in the community-driven rebuilding efforts, which must include addressing food access. 

At the community level, groups advocating for much needed racial justice should make sure their efforts continue to integrate food justice, with updated recommendations in light of the riot damage to food access. Some of this work has begun. Minnesotans have stepped up and provided thousands of food donations to help individuals and families impacted. But more is needed.

Importantly, all efforts must lift up the voices of people living in communities impacted by the dual burden of protests against police brutality and COVID-19. Cities cannot fully rebuild without ensuring reliable access to food and other basic needs. So, as the long fight for racial justice rages on, children’s immediate need for food must be prioritized.

No food justice. No racial justice. We must protect hungry children in the fight to rid America of structural racism.

Sara Bleich, Ph.D, is a professor of Public Health Policy at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Sheila Fleischhacker, Ph.D, JD, is an adjunct professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. Melissa N. Laska, Ph.D, RDN, is a professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.