Hunger: a growing problem in the pandemic

The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York provides over 30 million pounds of food a year to 1,000 agencies in 23 counties. It is the only organization of its kind in northeastern New York. To donate, volunteer or find food, visit regionalfoodbank.net. (Provided photo — Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York)

Food security. It’s a term we hear a lot these days. But defining food security can be difficult. There are literally hundreds of definitions and an even greater number of food security indicators. As defined by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, food security is “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” More precise definitions include references to food preferences, dietary needs, safety, etc. 

The government began measuring household food security in 1995. During that year, they found that approximately 12% of the nation’s households experienced some level of food insecurity, 7.8 million households were classified as food insecure without hunger (without reduced food intake), and 4.2 million were classified as food insecure with hunger. 

You can compare that to 2011, when household food insecurity peaked at 14.9%. And to 2019 when, according to Feeding America, a leading national nonprofit food bank network, the country saw its lowest household food insecurity rate in 20 years, an estimated 10.5% (down from 11.1% in 2018).

Of course, that was prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which quickly exposed the lack of security in our food chain. 


Food insufficiency and mental health


One of the less-considered but clearly alarming consequences of this pandemic has been the way that it’s increased food insufficiency in the United States. Food insufficiency is the most extreme form of food insecurity. According to ERS, it occurs when families “sometimes or often do not have enough to eat.”

A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found a 25% increase in food insufficiency during the COVID-19 pandemic (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074937972100012X). The researchers responsible for the study also found that people that didn’t have enough to eat reported inferior mental health, with 89% of food-insufficient Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety, compared to 63% of food-sufficient Americans, and 83% of food-insufficient Americans reporting symptoms of depression, compared to 49% of food-sufficient Americans. 

The study also determined that the association between food insufficiency and poor mental health symptoms is lessened among people who receive free groceries and meals. Kyle T. Ganson, Ph.D., MSW, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and co-author of the study, has been quoted as saying, “Policymakers should expand benefits and eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other programs to address both food insecurity and mental health.” SNAP (more commonly known as “food stamps”) is the government’s largest food-assistance program for low-income Americans, benefiting 38 million people in 2019 and amounting to approximately $129 in support per household member per month. Since February of 2019, there’s been about a 15% increase in SNAP usage, a surge described in a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities as “unprecedented.”

The Ganson, et al, study maintains that future COVID-19-related policies should aim to increase public awareness of and provide additional funding to school food programs and food banks. 


Supporting food banks 

Throughout the pandemic, food banks and pantries have provided millions of Americans with much-needed food. People from every socio-economic level have required assistance, many for the first time. Typically, food banks rely on donated food, but many are now facing shortages and, in order to meet a demand that has grown to unprecedented levels, are buying food. 

I recently read about Cornell University alumni, Rick and Laura Pedersen, who own Pedersen Farms in Seneca Castle, New York, being selected as the Cornell Alliance for Science 2020 Farmer(s) of the Year after they donated 78,600 pounds of butternut squash and 15,000 pounds of kale to neighborhood food banks. The donated food was distributed through a local mutual aid network coordinated by BluePrint (blueprintgeneva.org), shortly before Thanksgiving. Kudos to the Pedersons and others like them. 


Nourish New York 

On Jan. 19, Gov. Cuomo announced that the state would be providing an additional $25 million to continue the Nourish NY initiative, an enterprise that many advocates say has been crucial to feeding at-risk New Yorkers during the pandemic. Nourish NY directs state funds to food banks and distribution networks that, in turn, use the funds to purchase products from NY farmers, producers, processors and suppliers at market rates, and then distribute that food to those in need. 

As of Dec. 1, 2020, Nourish NY funds have allowed food banks to purchase 17 million pounds of healthy food from more than 4,000 New York farm businesses. More than 1 million NY households received food through those programs. 

North Country farm businesses participating in the Nourish NY initiative include AgriMark (Cabot cheese) in Chateaugay, Childstock Farms in Malone, Dan’s Dairy (Meier’s Artisan Cheese) in Fort Covington, Nettle Meadow Farm in Warrensburg, Lucki 7 Livestock Co. in Rodman, North Harbor Beef in Sacketts Harbor, Agbiotic Inc. in Sacketts Harbor, and Great Lakes Cheese in Adams.


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