The Hunger Crisis: COVID-19 and Food Inequality

Not too long ago, many can attest to witnessing long lines of families waiting to receive food at local pantries and shelters. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these occurrences, indirectly affecting the pressing crisis of food insecurity. Food insecurity, defined as the lack of consistent access to food necessities in order to live an active, healthy life, stems from a culmination of inequities [1]. The question of how we can solve food insecurity is far too complex to answer, let alone solve. Food privilege, in the context of having access to food, is not commonly discussed in mainstream media. Moreover, many people think that the issue of food insecurity is simple. Families who face this issue lack the financial capability to purchase food—let alone healthy food. However, money is not the only issue. Living in a food desert limits your options of where you can find organic and fresh produce. Food deserts are areas that have limited access to affordable and healthy food, compared to other areas with supermarkets and organic produce [2]. In addition, working a minimum wage job and having a large family to provide for affect someone’s ability to access these healthy food options. Poor nutrition and unhealthy eating can lead to chronic diseases that can lead to more economic stress. This is a constant cycle and, unfortunately, a reality for many individuals.


Food insecurity is often overlooked by the general public—with aspects of the COVID-19 recovery such as stimulus spending, vaccines, and the virus itself largely at the forefront of the nation’s attention. Despite the progress made in terms of macroeconomic recovery and vaccine rates, food insecurity in the United States remains a pressing and overlooked issue. After the pandemic, 36% of low-income adults in the US were food secure, 20% had marginal food security, and 44% were food insecure [3]. Families have cut down on their healthy food purchases and resorted to buying cheaper and more convenient fast-food options. From a nutritional perspective, the replacement of fresh fruits and vegetables has changed the eating habits and health outcomes of many individuals. Food insecurity, deteriorations in diet quality, micronutrient deficiencies, and other forms of malnutrition stem from these changes [4]. Eventually, this cycle of unhealthy eating and starving can lead to poorer health outcomes and chronic health issues.


Economically, food insecurity is exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19 on businesses and the national economy, with the cost of living increasing at a faster rate than wages are. In fact, hourly earnings when accounting for inflation has decreased 0.5% monthly [5]. People proportionally have less money to spend on food, since food costs take up a greater portion of their earnings. As individuals are being laid off, families have less disposable income to spend on food necessities. As a result, decisions have to be made in which certain food items are cut from their shopping carts. In addition to the impact on wages, supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic have resulted in limited availability and therefore higher prices. In fact, meat, fish, dairy, and eggs were especially affected by the shifting economy brought on by the pandemic [6]. As a result, cheap and processed foods are replacing healthy organic foods.


Where do we go from here? Although this issue is multifaceted and needs a multi-pronged approach to solve, initiatives have been made to help address food insecurity locally. In May 2020, New York City decided that it would deliver 1.5 million meals to food-insecure individuals. However, this plan failed; people described this intervention as a bandaid over a growing wound that would not heal [7]. Despite this impression, there have been measures taken and projects started to create more awareness for food inequality. More importantly, these projects have been led by community leaders who understand the prevalent issues in their areas. One popular project was led by A New World In Our Hearts, who set up a community fridge in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn. The fridge is stocked with fresh groceries that are either donated or purchased and replaced by other community residents. This give-and-take system has helped alleviate food insecurity, and the best part is that they are collectively maintained by community members for residents in need [7].


The food insecurity issue has revealed the underlying disparities that have contributed to this current crisis and have been further compounded by the pandemic. Food insecurity in the era of COVID-19 disproportionately affects low-income communities and holds the same weight as the already widely discussed medical, economic, and social impacts. Although there is no immediate comprehensive solution for these issues, progress has been made to alleviate the economic and social impacts of food insecurity. Local initiatives (such as the community fridge) exemplify how, with adequate community support and resources, this crisis can be alleviated one step at a time. Ultimately, greater awareness amongst the general population is necessary to tackle food insecurity nationwide.


References:

  1. SAGE Publications. (2016, September). Food insecurity: A public health issue. Public health reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5230819/.

  2. Dutko, P., Ploeg, M. V., & Tracey Farrigan, T. (2012, August). Characteristics and influential factors of food ... - USDA ERS. Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/45014/30940_err140.pdf.

  3. Wolfson, J. A., & Leung, C. W. (2020, June 2). Food insecurity and covid-19: Disparities in early effects for us adults. MDPI. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/6/1648.

  4. Carducci, B., Keats, E. C., Ruel, M., Haddad, L., Osendarp, S. J. M., & Bhutta, Z. A. (2021). Food Systems, diets and nutrition in the wake of COVID-19. Nature News. https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-021-00233-9.

  5. Cox, J. (2021, November 10). Inflation has taken away all the wage gains for workers and then some. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/11/10/inflation-has-taken-away-all-the-wage-gains-for-workers-and-then-some.html.

  6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020, August 1). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Food Price Indexes and data collection : Monthly labor review. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2020/article/the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-food-price-indexes-and-data-collection.htm.

  7. Evans, D. (2020, June 17). Give some, take some: How the community fridge fights food insecurity. Eater. https://www.eater.com/2020/6/17/21291849/community-fridges-food-insecurity-coronavirus-covid-19-impact.


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