By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN – Hunger is not new in America. And since March 2020 the number of people who don’t get enough to eat jumped from 37 million to 54 million. That includes 9 to 17 million children, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The nice word for being hungry is “food insecure.” The number will increase more in the next six months, according to Feeding America. In a recent week, a Census survey found that 14 million children in about 1/6 of U.S. households went hungry.
“It’s becoming harder for people to make ends meet,” said Ami McReynolds, Chief Program Officer of Feeding America.
McReynolds coordinates a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food kitchens. Their mission: to feed the hungry. She described a “perfect storm” of an increase in demand and a decline in donations since the pandemic hit in March. Demand has increased 60% in food banks around the country and they cannot meet the need on their own.
As the cost of living continues to increase people are falling further behind because their incomes cover fewer of their basic needs: housing, healthcare expenses, transportation, and food.
“Because food expenses often are flexible, food is often the very first thing that is sacrificed when a household’s resources are strained,” she said.
Unemployment is officially at 11%. That is the highest it has been since the Great Depression. It reached 10% in 2009 after the market crashed.
“The numbers are even more concerning for Black, indigenous, and people of color in this country who are impacted by food insecurity at even great levels. Food insecurity rates are 2 to 2.5 times higher than their white counterparts,” McReynolds said.
(SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants,and Children (WIC), and school lunch programs provide critical support. Feeding America’s network serves just one-ninth the number of people in the federal SNAP program reaches. McReynolds said the only way out of the current crisis is to boost federal food programs
“In any given week, 14 million kids are not eating enough and that’s five times higher than it was before the crisis,” said Rev. David Beckmann, president emeritus, Bread for the World.
Bread for The World mobilizes people of faith to urge Congress and the President to do their part to end hunger. The House passed the Heroes Act in May. Beckmann said the White House and Republican senators can’t even agree amongst themselves what they will support.
“They want the total to be about one third of what the House passed, cutting back on unemployment insurance, rental assistance, and other programs. It’s just going to be devastating for many people and probably for the economy.”
Bread for the World is urging people to ask their senators to pass the bill so there will be continued assistance and to focus on the SNAP program and feeding kids when the schools are closed.
In San Antonio, Texas, Jovanna Lopez started the People’s Nite Market in 2015 and then organized community gardens where people are growing their own food.
“We saw that the food banks were disturbing food that was rotting, food that was not nutritious for our communities–and on top of that– the only farmers market we had in town was this very bourgeoisie boutique market that didn’t take food stamps, so it was our call to provide something to the community that would create access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Lopez said.
She said the situation before COVID was already dire. “When COVID started its’ like all of this poverty and hunger came to the surface. People were kind of trapped in their apartments, especially elderly and handicapped, and people who had no access to transportation.”
Lopez said local officials were not helpful so after the pandemic hit, they raised $6,000 from the community. By chance, she hooked up with the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program that needed organizations to distribute that food.
“We get three trucks a week that’s about 5000 boxes of produce that come every week,” she said. Since June they have fed 150,000 families. They work with other organizations that raise money for eggs, rice, meat, and staples that are in short supply.
“This has been a collective and grassroots effort amongst the community here in San Antonio because it’s been very hard,” Lopez said. She said neither the local government nor the food banks were prepared for COVID.
Lopez said the Farmers to Families program is not a long term solution and she has been pestering local officials for funing to continue it in a different way.
The San Antonio Housing Authority leased them some land at $1 a year. People are growing their own food to supplement their diet.
“What happened here in San Antonio is that a lot of the policies that in place are here for developers. It is so hard to buy an empty lot in San Antonio to use for urban farming. There are so many people who want to do it but there are so many things that are up against us to allow people to grow their own food,” Lopez said.
One obstacle is the $20,000 it costs to plat a piece of land you want to grow food on. Lopez wants to do away with fees for urban farmers.
Even in a pro-development San Antonio, like Nashville, there is a network of community gardens to supplement peoples’ diets with food they grow. People pay a small fee but the Green Space Alliance and a local church support the gardens.
Lopez advises people to know their local councilperson and connect with other community leaders who are trying to feed their communities and keep people housed.