Getting Creative to Keep Americans Fed During COVID-19

May 13, 2020 | ASTHO Staff

Food insecurity is hardly a new phenomenon in the U.S. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food security report found that 37.2 million Americans were food insecure. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has exasperated challenges around access to nutritious and affordable foods—and impacted communities that were already food insecure prior to the pandemic. Feeding America estimates that an additional 17.1 million Americans will experience food insecurity as a result of COVID-19, with 98 percent of food banks reporting an increase in demand for food, and 59 percent reporting less inventory.

In addition to the negative health effects associated with COVID-19, food insecure individuals are at increased risk of anemia, lower nutrient intake, cognitive problems, asthma, depression, and poorer general health. Food security status is also a strong predictor of chronic illness in adulthood.

In response to the pandemic, the federal government has taken action to increase funding and access to programs to strengthen food security. For example, the USDA established the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which allocates $3 billion dollars to purchase produce, meat, and dairy products from farmers in the U.S. The USDA also outlined food and nutrition service actions that offers significant flexibilities within its programs during the pandemic. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which passed on March 18, allocated over $3 billion dollars to strengthen federal nutrition programs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the state level, policymakers have extended waivers and expanded eligibility for benefits programs, continued school meal programs, and increased safe delivery services for socially vulnerable populations. Below is an overview of state legislative activity to support populations at an increased risk for food insecurities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

School Meals

Twenty-two million students benefit from the free and reduced-price lunch program and more than 12 million students benefit from the free and reduced-price breakfast program. To help stop the spread of COVID-19, most states closed public and private schools through the end of the academic year, and it is yet unclear how or when schools will open in the fall. As a result, several states have considered legislation to prevent millions of students from losing access to affordable and nutritious meals while schools are closed.

Maine enacted a bill allowing the state to continue providing nutrition services to students as long as elementary and secondary schools are closed. Kentucky’s governor signed a bill requiring the Department of Education to seek waivers from federal government agencies under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act that would reimburse school districts for any meals prepared and served. This would include waivers allowing service in non-congregant settings and reducing mandatory wait times between serving meals during times that a district’s schools are closed to students. New Jersey also enacted a bill requiring school districts to provide meals or meal vouchers to students eligible for free and reduced meals during school closures due to COVID-19.

California’s legislature is considering a bill requiring the provision of one nutritionally adequate free or reduced-price meal during each day that would have been considered a school day to needy pupils in grades K-12 and in charter schools. The bill would allow for the option to deliver meals to the home of the pupil. Additional duties would also be required for local educational agencies to impose a state-mandated local program.

Governor Polis in Colorado issued an executive order suspending normal in-person instruction but allowed schools to use their buildings to provide services to students, educators, and families, including food service in coordination with local public health agencies. In March, Michigan Governor Whitmer issued a statement on the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order clarifying that K-12 school food services are considered critical infrastructure and should continue in order to ensure that Michigan students have access to the food they need during the pandemic.

In April, Guam’s Joint Information Center released an update on the Grab-N-Go School Meals program, which offers no-cost meals to all children ages 18 and under, including children from public and private schools. The program was also expanded to provide breakfast and added additional distribution sites.

Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) supplements the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency. As more individuals lose jobs and wages due to the pandemic, they are at increased risk of experiencing food insecurity. USDA and state policymakers are implementing waivers and program flexibilities to increase access and expand eligibility to this program.

New Jersey’s Assembly passed a resolution urging the Department of Human Services to apply for any available federal waivers to expedite access to SNAP benefits and ease any administrative burdens during the pandemic. In the resolution, the Assembly noted that, at the time, approximately 226 school districts were closed in response to COVID-19, depriving thousands of food insecure students of access to the nutritious meals they usually receive at school

In Nebraska, Governor Ricketts announced temporary changes to the state’s SNAP, such as extending recertification periods by six months, providing emergency allotments, waiving interview requirements, extending eligibility periods, and expanding eligibility to individuals without dependents and unable to meet work requirements.

The elderly population, home-bound due to their increased risk of infection, are also susceptible to food insecurities. In Maine, Governor Mills and the health commissioner announced that the state would expand access to meals for older Mainers. Using funds from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the Department of Health and Human Services is supporting local partners and meal delivery volunteers. Similarly, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in April that provides the state’s elderly population with three meals a day.

It’s imperative that communities have access to nutritious foods and state and territorial health agencies play an important role developing cross-sector partnerships to increase access to food and nutrition programs. By addressing food insecurities that have persisted in communities for decades—and that’s exacerbated by unemployment or lost wages during the pandemic—governmental public health can take a more upstream approach and address the social determinants of health to achieve optimal health for all. ASTHO will continue to track this important public health issue.