Craig Gundersen is the ACES Distinguished Professor in the department of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Gundersen, who studies the impact of food assistance programs on public health, spoke with University of Illinois News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about COVID-19-related food insecurity.
How much has COVID-19 affected food insecurity in the U.S.?
Food insecurity was a major issue in the U.S. before the pandemic and it’s going to continue to be a major issue after the pandemic ends. In my work with Feeding America, we’re projecting that roughly 50 million people will experience food insecurity this year in the U.S. For context, that number was about 35 million in 2019.
So COVID-19 and the resulting economic contraction accounts for an almost 43 percent increase in food insecurity in the U.S. And that increase has disproportionately fallen on the most vulnerable — those who are working in relatively low-wage hourly jobs that require them to be present in-person at work to earn a paycheck.
We’re not seeing as much of an effect for people with white-collar jobs who can work remotely. But when low-paid workers are unable to work, they become food insecure because they’re already an economic shock or two away from food insecurity.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the unemployment rate didn’t go up as much as some economists anticipated after the initial spike in joblessness in the spring. And that was mostly due to the Trump administration and Congress working together to pass the various stimulus packages, which helped quite a bit to lessen some of these problems.
But there’s no sugarcoating the fact that COVID-19 caused a dramatic spike in food insecurity.
Should the government do more to provide relief for food-insecure families?
The federal government should continue the same strategies it employed before the pandemic struck, but just supersize them. In other words, make it easier for people to access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, what most people commonly call food stamps. SNAP is an amazing resource and a very efficient program that helps tens of millions of our fellow Americans each year, especially during times of need. And we are in a time of need due to COVID-19.
So the federal government should look to expand the program, both in eligibility and in benefits. A lot of states have implemented ways to make it easier for people in need to get on the program, and the Trump administration and Congress have made some interesting policy moves in terms of temporarily expanding spending benefits.
This is the nice thing about having a program like SNAP. It’s explicitly designed to be a safety valve during tough times. Personally, I would make it so that we can increase benefits a little quicker when people’s incomes fall. And that should be the case whether incomes fall because of a pandemic or some other economic shock. We should be able to get benefits to people faster.
One other bit of good news is that food prices have stayed relatively stable. There were real concerns at the beginning of the pandemic that the food supply chain would break. That didn’t happen. So if we just give people the assistance that they need, those benefits will stretch a lot more than if food prices were experiencing inflationary pressure.
Public health experts are warning that the most challenging three months of the pandemic are ahead of us. What does that portend for food insecurity?
Historically, the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas has always been a busy time for food pantries. It’s absolutely higher this year, and we will probably see increased demand for food.
The good news is that donations to our food bank network in the U.S. have been amazing. Americans have stepped up and given more. So while there’s increased demand, there’s also increased supply, which is a good thing.
Have different geographic areas across the U.S. been hit harder by food insecurity?
What we see in the Map the Meal Gap data is that there are a large number of counties across the U.S. that really have had no change in unemployment, so food insecurity levels there have basically stayed the same.
But areas that rely on tourism — Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Orlando, for example — have been hit quite hard. Even Chicago, which has a huge restaurant scene that employs numerous hourly employees, has experienced it as well.
So there’s a lot of variation across the country. We should really start thinking about putting additional resources into those areas. A good place to start would be a targeted increase in SNAP benefits.
Children from low-income backgrounds get much of their food through schools. Now that schools are increasingly online, how has the pandemic affected school-age children’s food insecurity?
There’s no doubt that school-age children who used to receive one or two meals a day from their school have been missing out on those meals or have only been sporadically getting those meals.
One of the policy responses that was successful was the pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, where children who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches would automatically receive money equal to the daily meal costs of what they would have received at school. Again, this benefit was run through SNAP.
Food banks around the country are cognizant of this meal gap, and they have mobilized to distribute baskets of food to school-aged children. That has been another successful response.
Another idea that I’m evaluating right now with colleagues from Baylor University is the effectiveness of a program called Emergency Meals-to-You, which are baskets of food delivered right to people’s doors, targeted to children in vulnerable rural areas. That’s another potential pathway for addressing the problem, and also solving the problem of hunger when schools are out of session for breaks and over the summer.