We’ve all seen the lines. Dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, either standing socially distanced, or navigating their cars through orange cones, in an effort to pick up a bag or a box of food to feed themselves and their families.
It evokes the black and white photos from the Great Depression era, of families standing in lines that wrapped around buildings for blocks just to get a hot meal. Only this isn’t 1931. It’s 2021, and we still have a staggering number of people in this country who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
“Thirty-five million people were already suffering from not being able to put food on their tables,” Thao Nguyen, the vice president of advocacy at Feeding America, tells SELF. That number has only grown under the compounded pressure of the COVID-19 global pandemic. “Now we’re looking at nearly 50 million people not being able to know where their next meal comes from.”
These stats demonstrate the growing problem of food insecurity, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines as uncertain access to food, meaning you may not know when you can expect your next meal or how you’re going to pay for it. It’s slightly different from the official definition of hunger, which is defined as a physiological condition on an individual level that could arise from food insecurity. More broadly, food insecurity is not only about access to food in general, but to the kind of food that can fuel you for a healthy lifestyle—one that allows you to take the best care possible of yourself, your loved ones, and your community.
There are lots of issues driving food insecurity, but systemic inequities are a huge one. These inequities do not happen by accident, Sarah Reinhardt, M.P.H. R.D., the senior analyst of food systems and health at the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells SELF. In many cases, racism is a huge driver.
“They’re not natural,” she says. “They’re a result of policy decisions that were made to keep Black people and many other people of color living in neighborhoods without the resources and opportunities that were afforded to white people.”
While the cause is pretty clear, the solution is more complex. It includes a mix of public-private partnerships (i.e., government support of local, community-based food systems), food justice advocacy, local activism, federal policy innovation, and fighting racism. It’s a tall order, and even though the issue is so urgent, it’s not going to be a sprint, Nguyen explains: “It’s going to be a marathon.” With that in mind, here are some strategies that could help us actually make access to affordable, healthy food a reality for the millions of people facing food insecurity.
1. Urge politicians to rectify the effects of racist community policies.
Many problems leading to food insecurity and food access issues can be traced back to legacy structural policies in communities that left certain areas—many in Black communities or other communities of color—without much-needed food resources.
“Redlining and other policies have left an indelible mark on how our neighborhoods look and function in almost every major city and in some rural areas, too,” Reinhardt says. Redlining refers to the practice of outlining areas with large Black populations in red ink on city maps, so mortgage lenders would know the neighborhoods where Black families lived and be less likely to approve their loan applications. This also showed businesses—including grocery stores—the neighborhoods with high-density Black populations, and as a result, many were less likely to invest and set up shop in those locations. According to Jasmine Ratliff, Ph.D., the self-determining food economies and policy manager for the National Black Food & Justice Alliance (NBFJA), this disinvestment led to a lack of generational wealth in Black and other underserved communities.
The depressed level of economic investment and home ownership in these areas created what’s known as food deserts, where there’s a lack of access to healthy food, as well as food swamps, or areas where there is a high density of businesses selling fast food and less conventionally healthy food. Food justice advocate Karen Washington, co-founder of Black Urban Growers, is credited with coining the term “food apartheid” to more adequately describe what has led to a lack of access to nutrient-rich food in Black communities.
While the redlining that led to this food apartheid was technically banned 50 years ago with The Fair Housing Act of 1968, factors like city zoning laws continue to be an issue for food access.
“Zoning laws can have tremendous impacts on where grocery stores exist, as well as a community’s ability to participate in urban farming, local food production, [and] things like that,” Reinhardt says. For example, food justice activist Neftalí Durán, co-founder of the group I-Collective, has been trying for years to get zoning laws passed to allow backyard hen farming for residents in Holyoke, Massachusetts, only to be faced with what Durán describes as growing barriers—including special permits and inspection fees—against it. Circumstances like these show how zoning laws can keep people from achieving food sovereignty (the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced sustainably, as well as to define your own agricultural system), Reinhardt says.
Even laws that were implemented to increase equity in food access, such as the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890—which established land-grant institutions in states to educate people on agriculture and other practices—struggle to fulfill their initial intent. Initially, these institutions included predominantly white universities and colleges, but when the act was expanded in 1890, it added historically Black colleges and universities. According to Dr. Ratliff, though, there are often noticeable inequities in how the laws are implemented: “You’ll see sustainable agriculture in the white universities, and not necessarily in the Black universities,” she says. “We’re always trying to fight for that same treatment or that state match [in funding], or things that were supposed to be equalized and in legislation, but are not being implemented at this point.”
To adequately and sufficiently address these issues in policy and in federal and local laws, we first need to address the inherent racism that’s influencing them. Voter turnout is crucial in doing so, because even smaller elections can help areas work for change. But the impact of voting policy, especially as it relates to voters of color, cannot be overlooked. According to a February 2021 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, legislators introduced four times the number of bills restricting voting access since February 2020 as compared to the previous year. These proposals include restrictions on mail voting, ending or restricting election day registration, and decreasing Sunday voter hours when many Black churches hold mass voter drives known as “Souls to the Polls.” This can create barriers, where many in these communities feel like they don’t have a say in what happens at their local level, says Dr. Ratliff.
“We have policy makers who are uncomfortable with people of all races having equal access to some of these important aid programs, and that’s an unfortunate legacy that just makes all of our policy making that much more complicated and unjust,” Nina F. Ichikawa, the executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute at UC Berkeley, tells SELF.
2. Pay a fair and liveable wage for work.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, which has not changed since 2009. Some workers make even less than that, including tipped workers and agriculture workers.
When wages are low, people’s paychecks must stretch to cover all of the necessities, including food, shelter, transportation, or medication. As it stands now, some agriculture workers can’t afford to buy the food they plant, harvest, and help distribute across the country.
“We can’t keep paying people less and less and then scrambling to find food for them to avoid hunger,” Ichikawa says. “It’s a disempowering and ultimately counterproductive strategy.”
And the pandemic has only magnified these issues for people in low-income households who were already struggling to meet their basic needs, according to a 2020 study published in Nutrients. In the study, which included nearly 1,500 people with incomes less than 250% of the federal poverty line ($26,200 for a family of four), researchers found that 44% of participants were food insecure in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The adults dealing with food insecurity were also more likely to have their hours reduced at work, and were more likely to say they’d lose their jobs if they missed too many days of work.
Experts say now more than ever is the time for lawmakers to raise the federal minimum wage. “Being able to put money in the hands of people who need it to be able to get food is the most efficient way for families to be able to get out of food insecurity,” Nguyen says. What’s more, if people made more money at one job, they’d also have more time to grocery shop and cook, Ichikawa says—two time-related factors which can play a role in the quality of food people eat.
While there had been some movement on this at the federal level with the introduction of the American Rescue Plan, the provision to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour was removed before the plan passed. More push to increase the minimum wage has taken place at the state level, or by large businesses themselves, who have declared raises to their minimum wage. For instance, in July, Target increased its minimum wage to $15 an hour. And just in February, Costco announced it was raising its rate to $16 an hour.
Until there is a widespread bump, though, unions continue to play a big role in working toward fair and livable wages. Union organizers for airline workers and those who work at Marriott hotels are using the tagline One Job Should Be Enough to emphasize that they should make enough to live by working eight-hour days.
3. Continue and expand some of the food access programs we already have.
The key programs that are used to fight hunger in the United States include SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which you access through your electronic benefit transfer, or EBT card), WIC (Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), and P-EBT (Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer). The role of programs like these that give people direct access to money that can be used to purchase food can’t be understated, Reinhardt says.
And that holds true especially amid this health crisis. During the pandemic, benefit levels for SNAP have been increased 115% to help struggling families address their food insecurity. And P-EBT, which was created during the pandemic, provides additional electronic benefits that families can use when school is closed. “It’s essentially taking the place of the meals kids would have been receiving at schools,” says Reinhardt.
While the process of applying for and receiving benefits like SNAP can be frustrating in some cases, these kinds of programs can be very effective as a first line of defense against hunger. In fact, for every meal they serve at Feeding America, the SNAP program provides nine, Nguyen said. What’s more, research from the Berkeley Food Institute published in the Journal of Health Economics shows SNAP purchasing power has also been linked to better health outcomes for children, such as fewer school days missed due to illness and a greater likelihood of seeing their doctors for check-ups—as well as reducing their risk of food insecurity.
According to Ichikawa, the efficacy of these programs is no longer up for debate. Instead, we need continued support from policymakers (and to overcome the will of those against them) to maintain and further these programs.
One possible way to do that is to expand programs that provide boosted benefits. For example, SNAP benefits can be used at grocery stores and at eligible farmers markets, which gives struggling families access to even more food. But there are also programs in certain states that allow folks to double their SNAP benefits at their farmers markets, Nguyen says. For instance, Feeding Florida’s Fresh Access Bucks program in Florida allows people to do so at farmers markets, community grocery outlets, and CSAs.
There are some barriers to this, though, including easy accessibility to these markets and programs. “The double bucks program is currently a state-funded program, but it needs some support from federal funding to be accessible at all farmers markets, especially the ones in the highly populated Black communities that are lower income and need the resources more,” says Dr. Ratliff.
4. Increase the child tax credit.
Among the 50 million people across the country who are hungry, 17 million are children. Another way to help cut hunger for them is by increasing the child tax credit, Nguyen says. This could be a direct way to cut child poverty and child hunger, again by putting more money into people’s pockets that they can spend on necessities such as food.
We’re already making strides with this: As part of the American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration increased the child tax credit from $2,000 to $3,600 for children under age 6 (and to $3,000 for children ages 6 to 17). The new tax credit is fully refundable, which means if you don’t owe any taxes, you will get the full credit as a tax refund.
Right now, this expansion of the child tax credit is only supposed to last for the 2021 tax year, but some lawmakers are aiming to make it permanent. In any case, this expansion—together with other measures of the American Rescue Plan—is estimated to cut child poverty in half, which can play a vital role in decreasing child hunger and food insecurity.
5. Feed students no matter what.
When the COVID-19 lockdowns first began, experts worried that children who were already living with some degree of food insecurity might go without meals entirely. They feared that since they were being homeschooled, they wouldn’t be receiving breakfast and lunch at school.
P-EBT has helped alleviate this concern, as did the expansion of other programs, such as the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program. But other programs, like the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, have more restrictions and are implemented at a school district’s discretion. This can mean some students in some states will have access to breakfast and lunch no matter the income level of their parents, while others will have to continue to fill out the paperwork to qualify for free or reduced price lunch. For those who don’t qualify, paying full price can increase their school lunch debt, which could prevent a student from graduating, moving to the next grade level, or can allow them to simply go without eating.
The flexibility states have in implementing these programs means in some states they work very well, whereas in other states, it’s a mess. “I think as a country we should get more towards some national consistency,” Ichikawa says.
In fact, experts say a federal policy can go a step further by creating a universal school meal program—something which can help take a hit at hunger even in non-pandemic times. This might look like every state allowing all students to have breakfast and lunch for free regardless of income level, as well as providing these same meals during the summer.
“Kids go to school, they get to sit in desks, they get to drink from water fountains, they should get to eat healthy meals,” Reinhardt says. “It should just be a given.”
6. Support resources that make it easier for people to grow their own food.
While some of these solutions to increasing food access may take longer than others—in particular, rectifying the legacy of racism—some people are able to grow their own food to lessen their food insecurity.
Ichikawa says urban agriculture is one way that people can achieve food sovereignty (as long as they have the space, time, or zoning support to do so, which unfortunately is not the case for everyone dealing with food insecurity). Urban agriculture can include raising hens in your backyard, establishing a community garden, or working on a local farm. Some of these community-based options can be particularly helpful for establishing food sovereignty for those who live in urban areas without access to a backyard, or who have zoning laws that make farming on their own difficult.
Through urban agriculture, “a lot of people in urban, semi-urban, and even rural contexts are feeding themselves,” Ichikawa says. “A lot of food is cultivated and changes hands, and it’s not about buying or selling—it’s about doing it for yourself.”
Programs such as the International Rescue Committee, a refugee organization that establishes successful farms led by immigrants, can be important ways for people to get involved with agriculture when they may not know where or how to start.
“There’s no shortage of enthusiasm for urban agriculture, but what we do need is policy support,” Ichikawa says. We also need the creation of careers in this field, Dr. Ratliff says, which would decrease the burden on people who are involved in urban farming as a way of feeding themselves while also working one or more full-time jobs.
Additionally, urban agriculture requires the support of people who are food secure, especially those who live in areas where urban agriculture is taking off. That support can look like voting in favor of zoning laws that allow its development, or establishing or serving on a food policy council. Buying their offerings, if they’re available to the public, can help, too.
7. Support food banks and pantries.
Feeding America has a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 partner pantries and meal sites to help reduce food insecurity in every county across the country. But it’s still not enough. “We are not going to be able to food-bank our way out of ending hunger,” Nguyen said.
This is especially true since Feeding America estimates that food banks will see a decline of USDA foods of 30 to 40%, when the need at food banks has increased about 60%. The reason for this decline? Food banks relied on food from The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to provide more than a billion meals last year, but with the USDA ending the Food Purchase and Distribution Program at the end of 2020, they’ll be missing out on the food that program provided. “That is a lot of missed meals that many American families are going to need to come from their food banks,” Nguyen says.
Now, Feeding America is actively working to make sure families aren’t harmed by the possibility of less food coming in, by fighting against disruptions in the USDA food supply chain and for funding to purchase more USDA foods. You can help on an individual level, too, by donating food or time to these food banks.
8. Use your voice.
Just as powerful as policy is people—whether they’re food insecure or not—using their voice to advocate for those who are struggling.
“I hope that one of the silver linings coming from this pandemic is that there’s an increased awareness of how hunger is pervasive in our communities, and that people look for opportunities where they can really add their voice—where they can volunteer, or where they can consider donating to ensure that this crisis doesn’t continue,” Nguyen says.
Nguyen knows not everyone can afford to donate to food banks and food pantries or even volunteer, but she believes everyone can take a step like making a call to Congress, sending an email to your representatives, or writing a note to local leadership about the long lines of people trying to get assistance to access food in their community. “If you’re able to just use your voice, you can change the lives of so many people.” For more specifics on how you can help, check out these tips on how you can help people facing hunger in your community.