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  • Writer's pictureCommunity Wealth Partners

What We Can Learn From the Pandemic To Close the Nutrition Gap

By the Healthy Food Community of Practice Advisory Team: Randy Feliciano, The National Council on Aging; Kelley Ferguson, Wholesome Wave; Alejandra Gepp, UnidosUS; Quinney Harris, National WIC Association; Sue Kater, The League for Innovation in the Community College; Stacey McDaniel, YMCA of the USA; Grace Perry, Action for Healthy Kids

This post originally appeared in Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity. See the original post here.

During times of crisis throughout the United States history, there are stories of people coming together and finding innovative ways to meet urgent needs. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the lives of many people upside down and laid bare deeply rooted inequities that plague our nation. While it is too soon to say exactly how future generations will reflect on our country’s response to the pandemic, to us, a bright spot has been the dedication, mobilization, and innovation of a diverse range of organizations that have worked tirelessly this past year to ensure that everyone who needs food and nutrition assistance receives it. We celebrate the successes we’ve seen in getting nutritious, culturally appropriate food and services to people who need it, and we call on policymakers and funders to take action to address food and nutrition insecurity in this country for the long term.

When the pandemic reached the U.S., it caused immediate economic impacts that led to a significant increase in the number of people needing nutrition assistance. In September 2020, according to Census data, 10% of adults said their household didn’t have enough to eat in the past seven days, up from 3.4% in all of 2019. The economic fallout brought on by the pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color. For example, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Latinos were already experiencing higher food-insecurity rates than the general population and the number of Hispanic households with children not having enough food to eat has steadily increased since the start of the pandemic, topping out at 21% in November 2020. At the same time as this spike in demand, social distancing requirements created severe disruptions to the ways in which assistance programs supported families to access and consume healthy food.

Despite these challenges, we have seen a range of organizations adapt and innovate in inspiring ways. YMCAs across the country pivoted after facilities were shut down to become food distribution centers, redeploying staff and reaching over a million people during the pandemic. UnidosUS swiftly provided emergency assistance to its affiliate network to become food distribution centers and respond to demand for services, partner with food banks, and provide culturally responsive programming to Latinos. The passage of the FEED Act enabled states to pay restaurants to prepare nutritious meals for vulnerable populations. Many organizations partnered with restaurants and other corporations to distribute food. For example, Common Threads, which provides nutrition education to families and communities, formed partnerships with restaurants, food companies and other nonprofits to provide food and nutrition education materials to children and families in five metropolitan areas. Organizations like Feeding America and Share Our Strength have raised and redistributed millions of dollars to provide meals to families in need across the country. Online tools such as Free Meals Finder, FoodFinder, and Feeding America’s Foodbank Network have scaled to help more people easily find meals and food banks.

The frontline heroes who have worked relentlessly to distribute food and help enroll people in nutrition benefits could not have made the progress they did without critical support from federal and state agencies and private philanthropy. Expanding food assistance benefits and streamlining processes and removing red tape were critical to being able to serve communities. Government changes that made a difference include:

  • Increased funding for Pandemic-EBT with an extension through Summer 2021, which provides funds to low-income families missing meals due to school and childcare closures

  • Increased SNAP benefits temporarily through 2021, which provide supplemental funding to low-income families’ food budgets,

  • Waivers that allowed for greater flexibility such as waiving in-person meeting requirements to enroll in WIC, adjusting area eligibility for the Summer Food Service Program and Child and Adult Care Food Program, and allowing for parent pick-up of meals,

  • Scaling the use of telephonic signature to be able to provide nutrition benefits application support over the phone,

  • Loosening requirements for what foods are considered EBT-eligible, which means that some Indigenous communities and other groups are now able to purchase culturally appropriate foods with EBT funds.

These changes, among others, have resulted in tens of billions of dollars in nutrition assistance and sparked innovations that make it easier and safer for families to enroll in benefits and secure food. For example, Grab ‘N Go sites popped up in communities across the country so that families could safely and quickly pick up meals. Meal delivery services expanded significantly to reach more people. Mutual aid networks sprung up in communities around the country to support neighbors in accessing healthy food. New partnerships among health systems, community-based organizations and larger nonprofits have helped ensure historically marginalized populations receive culturally relevant supports to connect them to resources. Nutrition education programs switched to virtual programming, allowing them to reach more families.

While these supports and successes are worth celebrating, now is not the time to let off the gas. The threat of the virus may be diminishing, thanks to vaccine rollouts and adherence to CDC guidelines, but the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on families will have lasting effects. Some economists project that it could take years to get back to pre-pandemic levels of prosperity and economic well-being.

Ensuring all Americans have access to healthy food will require some key supports from state and federal policymakers and funders from all types. Looking ahead, we call for actions from policymakers and funders that both meet immediate needs and help create long-term solutions.

Maintain flexibility and funding to meet immediate needs.

Every time Congress has passed a relief bill to extend nutrition access benefits, there has been a collective sigh of relief and cheers of celebration among those of us working to get food to people who need it. However, because these extensions have been passed as temporary stopgaps, there has also been a collective holding of breath every few months as we wonder if the added benefits will expire, and, if they do, how we will meet the need in our communities. We encourage federal and state policymakers to make long-term investments to ensure continued access to nutrition for the people who need it. Some key recommendations:

  1. Extend funding, expand eligibility, and increase adequacy for nutrition assistance. This includes steps like permanently authorizing Summer EBT, passing the Wise Investment in our Children (WIC) Act, maintaining area eligibility waivers, and making permanent the 15% increase in SNAP benefits.

  2. Maintain flexibility around the process for enrolling in nutrition assistance such as allowing for electronic enrollment and telephonic signature.

  3. Maintain flexibilities in food access. This would continue to allow for flexibilities such as having meals delivered to people instead of requiring people to travel to centralized sites every day and allowing people to use benefits to purchase groceries online.

  4. Continue to remove barriers on what is SNAP-eligible so people can purchase foods that are culturally appropriate or more easily accessible.

  5. Increase culturally and linguistically appropriate outreach and education for federal nutrition programs so eligible individuals and families can make informed decisions about enrollment.

  6. Reduce red tape to remove duplication between programs where possible. For example, streamlining rules for afterschool and summer meals programs make it easier to serve meals year-round.

It has been encouraging to see the flexibility government programs have offered to make it easier to enroll people for benefits and distribute food to them. Advocates have been pushing for these changes for years, and the pandemic rapidly made them a reality. Some processes that used to take weeks or months are now happening in a matter of days, and this has had a significant impact on organizations’ ability to serve people during a challenging time. Now that we know it’s possible to administer these programs with significantly less bureaucratic red tape, we hope that this flexibility will become permanent.

Dismantle systemic barriers to advance equity and create long-term solutions.

If we truly want to achieve a vision where everyone has sufficient access to healthy foods, we must balance short-term efforts to meet immediate needs with long-term strategies to address the root causes of hunger and poverty, and these strategies must center on equity.

Effective strategies will require targeted approaches for communities of color and rural communities that historically experience higher rates of poverty and food insecurity due to systemic barriers. The pandemic and fight for racial justice over the past year laid bare the inequities that have always been present.

Food is a vital part of culture and tradition, and we know that many current approaches are not culturally relevant to Black, Latinx, or Tribal communities. Organizations serving these populations should work to understand the history that resulted in oppression and the creation of systemic barriers and take steps to dismantle these systems and replace them with equitable solutions.

Achieving this will require greater coordination and collaboration among organizations working within the food security sector and across other, connected, issues such as housing, education, and healthcare. All these players will need to work toward a shared vision of equity. The partnerships that began before and during the pandemic will need to continue and grow for systemic change to occur. Philanthropic and corporate funders can play a helpful role by making connections among organizations working toward common purposes, using their convening power to bring organizations together, and providing funding to support collaborative efforts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a significant setback to ensuring everyone has access to the food and nutrition they need and deepened racial disparities. At the same time, the disruptions of the past year have also created opportunities to create better ways of working that will yield more equitable outcomes. As many areas of daily life begin to return to what they were before the pandemic, we encourage anyone playing a role in setting policy, designing programs, or providing funding for healthy food access to resist falling back to former ways of working that we now know weren’t working for many. Going forward, we must keep an eye toward dismantling inequitable systems and crafting new solutions that are collaborative, flexible, culturally relevant, and working toward systemic change.

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