COVID-19 has changed everything, including how we combat hunger
By Shayna Roth
Hunger is often thought of as an immediate issue. In many ways, it is. Most people feel hungry several times every day and can easily satisfy their need with a meal or snack. Similarly, food or monetary donations to help satisfy someone else’s need can also feel like a momentary experience. At its core, though, hunger is continuous.
On a large scale, hunger and food insecurity are growing issues in our local and national communities and responsive programs are growing alongside them. At last month’s National Anti-Hunger Policy conference, hosted annually by the Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America, thousands of professionals, advocates, communities, and policymakers gathered to learn about the present reality of hunger in America and our responses during 2020 — the largest anti-hunger gathering to date.
Many sessions focused on the immediate: at this very moment, how many people are hungry, how quickly that number is changing, how many federal dollars are allocated to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formally known as food stamps), what the statistical impact of SNAP is on economic growth, and what anti-hunger program roll-out timelines look like. These considerations are crucial to keeping the anti-hunger movement afloat daily.
This focus on immediate need and short-term action sometimes blocks the larger picture. At one of the sessions, a moderator asked each panelist what the success of their respective anti-hunger initiatives will look like in five years. As most of us would expect, the answers were largely illustrative of each project’s formal objective, such as an amount of money allocated toward food banks or a percentage of produce delivered to those living in food deserts. One panelist, though, said in five years the success of the programs will be seen by how our measurements for success change. He explained how combating food insecurity is an ongoing issue and assistance programs must evolve with it. While our ultimate goal may be to eliminate food insecurity, our road to get there requires us to constantly reassess the situation, our response(s) to it, and defining what success entails.
Reconsidering circumstances for what they are rather than what we anticipated they would be is particularly valuable this year. COVID-19 challenged the strength of SNAP and other hunger relief initiatives in many ways. As unemployment rates spiked and poverty increased, the temporary expansion of SNAP eligibility, total benefit amounts, emergence of a pandemic benefits program (known as P-EBT), and the redirection of food supply from closing restaurants to food banks are only a few of the innovative solutions catered specifically to our communities’ new needs. These “temporary” initiatives create momentum for us to build on. We are in a unique position to see the impact of waivers and additional benefits and to advocate for their implementation beyond these emergency circumstances.
As the assistance availability changes, so will our advocacy. A few weeks ago, more than 30 organizations involved with the #FUELHigherEd campaign wrote to the USDA about the necessity for more fair SNAP eligibility requirements for college students and increased accessibility for those who qualify. The letter recognized the shift in what success for college students looks like and the necessary action for continuous movement toward better outcomes for them. This exemplifies the changing needs and methods for continuous advocacy on behalf of those experiencing hunger in our communities. You can join these efforts now by taking action with me during SNAP into Action: sign up at campushunger.org/snap-into-action.
Shayna Roth is a law student at Northwestern University pursuing social policy and welfare programs. Her experiences in food policy and service roles in Philadelphia, writing her undergraduate thesis on addressing food insecurity in higher education, and most recently as a litigation paralegal in New York City motivate her to develop legal skills to fight hunger as a professional. She became involved with Challah for Hunger as an intern and campus leader during her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania and remains involved with the Alumni Advocacy Committee to date.