We must shore up access to food as COVID-19 takes hold

Shoppers flooded grocery stores this week, preparing for the spread of coronavirus, (COVID-19) and the possibility of being stuck at home for weeks. Experts recommend stocking at least two weeks’ worth of food, which might be easy for some, but could be extremely challenging for others. COVID-19 threatens to worsen existing inequities. As the country responds to the evolving situation, we should focus on ensuring food affordability and accessibility.   

 Even before COVID-19, about 11 percent of U.S. households were considered food insecure, meaning they didn’t have consistent access to sufficient food. COVID-19 will increase this proportion, for reasons including lost income and food price rises resulting from stockpiling and supply chain interruptions. 

Government relief to individuals and businesses should target support for those in greatest need, particularly workers with lower incomes. Paid sick days are essential because people need to be able to make decisions about whether to miss work without fearing financial catastrophe. 

It is deeply concerning that in spite of the virus, the U.S. government has confirmed its plans to change the eligibility requirements of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the primary federal food safety net program, potentially depriving hundreds of thousands of people of benefits starting April 1. SNAP and other food assistance programs should receive expanded funds to reach more people and, if food prices spike, should increase benefits. 

In anticipation of increasing need, hunger relief organizations, such as food banks and pantries, are activating emergency plans. These groups often operate on a shoestring, and now they face dramatically increased demand, plus withdrawal of many older adult volunteers who are at heightened risk from infection. Food businesses may be pressed to find the surplus food, funds and labor to maintain food donation programs. 

To help food relief organizations, cash contributions — rather than donating cans or dried goods — can more efficiently shore up food stocks. Federal and state governments should provide substantial emergency financial support and support efforts to align food distributions with areas of greatest need. 

In addition to affordability concerns, COVID-19 creates new food access challenges for those under quarantine and who have become ill. This is in addition to the ongoing struggles of those who live in areas without nearby grocery stores, people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, older adults living alone and those reliant on public transit. Where support networks are good, friends, families, neighbors and local volunteers will pitch in to bring groceries. But that’s not enough.

In many cases, grocery delivery is the best option. Those under quarantine may need subsidized deliveries. SNAP benefits could also help pick up the tab in the handful of states participating in the new Online Purchasing Pilot, which could be expanded in the crisis. 

Non-profit delivery services like Meals on Wheels play an important role, too. Increased resources could expand their reach and support their ability to provide clients with extra nonperishables. Their volunteer models and their engagement with food recipients will come under pressure in the face of COVID-19. In some cases emergency measures are being activated, such as food delivery by the National Guard. Everyone working in food delivery and other parts of the gig economy must be protected, including through paid sick time, protective equipment and precautions such as “no-contact drop-off.” 

Meanwhile, students reliant on free school meals will need alternate food sources if their schools close and their families can’t afford to meet the extra need. Of course, school closures also mean many food and agriculture workers are home and that affects their income and the food supply chain. We welcome the USDA’s announcement that it is willing to allow schools to use the summer meals program to offer grab-and-go meals during school closures. 

 Food security is often treated as a niche issue, an individual concern, or a matter for charity. But as COVID-19 unfolds, policymakers and businesses are recognizing its centrality and discussing and implementing food policy options that were recently considered impossible. 

A silver lining of this challenging situation is that multiple food businesses, including McDonalds, Darden Restaurants and Starbucks, have started to offer paid sick leave. We need others to step up, along with government policy to spread the benefit and provide further support to workers and businesses. 

As the pandemic unfolds it’s imperative we do all we can to protect ourselves, our families and wider society — particularly older adults, those in insecure jobs or with low incomes, people in ill health, and anyone lacking support and a safety net. If, in doing so, we can also implement the kinds of changes we’ve long needed to protect the population and increase the resilience and equity of the food system, this will be an added and lasting benefit. There is no time like the present. 

Roni Neff is an Associate Professor in Environmental Health & Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a Program Director at the school’s Center for a Livable FutureErin Biehl is a Program Officer at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. The views expressed are their own and not the views of The Johns Hopkins University.