A white woman with shoulder-length blonde waves, glasses, and a navy blue shirt beams at the camera.

By Cara Hare | Guest Writer

Cara Hare (she/her) is a queer student, social worker, and activist. She graduated from the University of Louisville in May 2020 with her Bachelor of Social Work. She is currently attending the University of Chicago to obtain her Advanced Standing Masters of Arts in Social Service Administration. Cara utilizes both an anti-oppressive and a rights-based framework when providing services in her current position as a case manager for refugees and immigrants.

COVID-19 has triggered food, income, and housing insecurity and illuminated long-standing racial disparities in nearly all corners of American life. From racially disparate coronavirus mortality rates to inequitable vaccine distribution, it is now more difficult than ever to ignore the United States’ affinity for white supremacy. 

As communities continue to experience suffering, we must open our eyes to the looming human rights violations that manifest in the distress, depression, and loss of our neighbors in our backyards. One foundational violation occurs when people do not have enough to eat. 

Photo by Laura James on Pexels.com

The Problem of Food Insecurity

The right to adequate food is globally mandated as a human right. It might then come as a surprise that our nation was failing to provide such a right pre-COVID. Eleven percent of Americans were food insecure in 2018.

In December 2019, the former administration introduced new limitations to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that were expected to cut nearly 700,000 previously eligible SNAP recipients who were able-bodied in a matter of months, all without providing an alternative pathway to self-sufficiency or emergency food relief. This rule was taken to court in 2020 and finally vacated in October.

Yet hunger in America has increased drastically with the pandemic, and families have turned to the SNAP program, which was developed during the Great Depression. SNAP, also known in Illinois as Link in reference to the Link cards that allow recipients to buy food, offers a wide array of public health benefits like reducing food insecurity and poverty, improving health outcomes, and improving economic security. 

Given that roughly 43 million people were participating in SNAP in September 2020, an increase of about 5 million from the previous year, there remains a need for food assistance particularly in phases of crisis. The new administration is taking steps to address the need, but emergency responses, while necessary, aren’t sustainable long-term.

Ultimately hunger is motivated by unemployment and low wages, impacted by structural racism including a lack of affordable housing as well as the existence of food deserts, and sometimes hunger is furthered by inadequate public assistance programs to address these barriers. 

If we want to end hunger in America, the root causes of food insecurity must be addressed in addition to increasing access to federal nutrition programs. 

Instead We… Devalue Our Essential Workers?

The Brooking’s Institute assessed that 42% of those employed in the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin region are low-wage workers. Our economy and lifestyles rely on those individuals working these high-risk, low-wage jobs. But jobs considered essential by governments were the least pliable with work from home options. 

Only 37% of Asian workers and 30% of white workers could work from home as of pre-pandemic data, with only 20% of Black workers able to do so and a mere 16% of Latino workers. Moreover, American job losses due to the pandemic were heavily centered on service and hospitality sectors and disproportionately slanted toward women and people of color.

Folks working in the service and hospitality sectors have been undervalued by society, and their wages can attest to this. Under the weight of the pandemic, service occupations have become the backbone of our society, yet most states are still failing to pay workers a living wage.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

SNAP and the Economy

Insufficient incomes and wages are significant contributors to the increase in food insecurity, in addition to policies that fail to keep people out of poverty. Food insecurity and hunger are social problems that can be solved through the creation of equitable policies and alleviated by increased access to nutrition programs and food pantries. This, in turn, benefits the nation.

Research indicates that each dollar in SNAP benefits during an economic recession generates up to $1.80 in the economy. When folks utilize SNAP benefits, specifically during the pandemic, they are actively shaping the economy and providing economic protection for the rest of the community. 

Although SNAP participants are savvy shoppers, able to extend their limited benefits to make ends meet, the monthly allotments are not adequate in sustaining a family. The Institute of Medicine published a 2013 study detailing why. Although such programming is a remedial solution for a problem rooted elsewhere, it is essential in keeping Americans fed.

Chicago’s Plan of Action

The Greater Chicago Food Depository has shown what leadership looks like with a $2.6 million award given to 26 community partners. These grants will increase food access in communities of color affected by hunger and poverty. 

Four new recipients were granted funds to open food pantries in the Chicago neighborhoods of Roseland, Englewood, Little Village, and south suburban Dolton, where a significant need is present. These food pantries will be designed and run by the Endeleo Institute, Inner-City Muslim Action Network, New Life Centers of Chicagoland, and the American Association for Single Parents respectively. 

The food pantries will focus on creating an affirming space free from trauma and shame to destigmatize the act of utilizing a food pantry for individuals and families. The pantries are set to open as early as June.  

Photo by Du01b0u01a1ng Nhu00e2n on Pexels.com

Find Assistance

The Greater Chicago Food Depository utilizes a racial-equity lens towards the development of their strategies to fight hunger and food insecurity. Its local sites are often looking for volunteers to distribute food.

Illinois has several programs that function to ameliorate food insecurity and hunger for residents as well. While they don’t solve the problem of hunger, they do help keep people alive. The following programs are available in all states:

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) remains the foundation of our nation’s safety net against hunger. You can apply online or call 1-800-843-6154 if you’re in Illinois.

The WIC program assists low-income women, infants, and children with food, nutritional education, and healthcare referrals. You can set up an appointment online or by phone.

Enacted on March 18, 2020, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides needed funding and flexibility to federal nutrition programs to make them more accessible to individuals in need due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Additionally, the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) provides benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic to remote-learning K-12 students who receive free or reduced-price school lunches under the National School Lunch Act. P-EBT provides $6.82 in benefits per student for each day that the student is remote learning and lacks access to an in-school lunch. 

To find a food bank in Chicago, search Depository sites here. Call in advance to confirm the hours. Additional Illinois-related resources are available as well. To look elsewhere in the United States, you can search by zip code at FeedingAmerica.org

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