The coronavirus pandemic fueled a hunger crisis unlike any other in our lifetime. In the spring of 2020, Massachusetts residents struggled to have enough to eat as they faced the challenges of lost wages, school closures, and an inability to purchase necessary food while social distancing. As of December 2020, 1 in 6 households and 1 in 5 households with children across the Commonwealth were food insecure.
Now, we are finally starting to see food insecurity rates decline in Massachusetts. Recent data indicate that in March, 13 percent of households in the state were food insecure, as compared to 19.6 percent in May 2020. While this is certainly good news, the worrying scenario is that returning to pre-pandemic rates of food security will be seen as the measure of success, that is, as having moved on from the hunger crisis of the pandemic.
What would it mean to return to the “normal” rates of food insecurity we had before COVID? Prior to the pandemic, 8.2 percent of people in the state were food insecure. This equated to more than a half million people, 566,930 to be exact, unsure about where their next meal would come from. Chronic and systemic racism has led to food insecurity being worse for Black and Latino families with children.
Food insecurity means hungry kids in school, elders skipping medication because of empty stomaches, and parents stressed about how to feed their children. Before the pandemic, some kids were accruing school meal debt because they could not afford the reduced or full-priced meals at their school, and elders were going to the local food pantry week after week to stock their shelves. The system we had before COVID was not working to solve hunger and returning to that system would not indicate success. Recovering from the hunger crisis created by the pandemic cannot mean returning to the hunger that existed before the pandemic.
What then is behind the declining rate of food insecurity? One critical factor has been the overall impact of multiple actions taken by the federal government to address known barriers to food access. For example, all children across the United States aged 0-18 currently have access to school meals. When they are out of school, the federal government is providing their families with an electronic card loaded with the value of school meals so they can buy their own food. In a similar move, people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are now receiving enough funding through that program to buy their own groceries, which not only provides dignity and allows for cultural and health needs to be taken into consideration, it means not having to rely on a food pantry.
As might be expected, these actions taken by the Biden administration and Congress to address hunger are working. Data collected monthly by the US Census show that school meals and SNAP are the two primary programs addressing hunger in our state, and that in the summer of 2020, among households in Massachusetts with children who received free food, 59 percent reported that they had received this food from a school meal site.
The lesson here is that policy makes the most impact toward solving hunger. Unfortunately, it took the scale of the COVID hunger crisis to enact some of the big, bold policy that anti-hunger organizations have been advocating for years. We need to regard the decrease in food insecurity as evidence that policy change matters.
Closing gaps in these programs is imperative. An estimated 700,000 eligible Massachusetts residents are not receiving critical support due to barriers that include lack of awareness and common misunderstandings about SNAP and other programs. At Project Bread, we see this in our nutrition intervention work with MassHealth, where approximately 40 percent of the patients that clinicians screen and diagnose as food insecure have not applied for SNAP despite being eligible. And during the typical school year in Massachusetts when there is not a global pandemic, there are no universal school meals, leaving 26 percent of food insecure kids ineligible for free or reduced-price school meals.
At the federal level, it’s crucial to make permanent many of the changes that have been made during COVID, like the 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits, and EBT cards for kids when out of school. SNAP should be available for all families in need, including immigrants, which is why the five-year waiting period to access SNAP for eligible immigrants should be eliminated.
At the state level, efforts to connect people to nutrition programs must continue. Passing legislation to close the SNAP Gap would be a huge step, streamlining the process of accessing these programs through a common application. There is also School Meals for All, recently filed legislation that would be the first in the nation to allow every student who wants or needs a school breakfast or lunch to receive it at no cost to their family and with no requirement to sign up or provide income or other information.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary and Education, districts that have utilized federal programs to provide school meals for all in the past, including Boston, Fall River, Springfield, and Worcester Public Schools, have seen higher program participation because barriers like perceived stigma and cost for those in the reduced-price category are eliminated when every child has greater access to school meals. If passed, participation in school meals will increase by an estimated 50,000 students statewide.
We must keep raising our voices to solve hunger in the United States. US Representative Jim McGovern has called for a White House Summit on hunger, and in a similar vein each of us concerned about our neighbors in need must, at minimum, pick up the phone and call our elected officials and tell them to keep the focus on solving hunger. How we act now, whether we continue to pursue big, bold anti-hunger policy solutions, or whether we allow things to “go back to normal,” is critical to the future for so many.
Erin McAleer is the president of Project Bread.