Op-ed: How to Feed America Better Post-Covid

By Veronica Goodman*

When teachers locked up their classrooms last March, few thought that a year later schools would still be shuttered and that millions of children would lack access to essential services, such as meals, and that millions of jobs would be lost, leaving many individuals and families struggling to put food on the table. America’s hunger crisis is now so acute that a recent analysis found that the number of children not getting enough to eat was ten times higher during the pandemic, while nearly 1 in 6 adults – or close to 24 million Americans – reported that their households did not have enough to eat sometimes or often in the past seven days.  

The sharp rise of hunger during the pandemic is yet another woeful legacy of the Trump administration’s mishandling of the Covid crisis, including trying to deny access to food relief by placing unnecessary bureaucratic barriers on states and even attempting to kick nearly 700,000 unemployed people off of food assistance in the midst of a once-in-a-century public health crisis. President Biden has thankfully made quick progress to address the hunger crisis through executive action and proposed legislation, but there is more work to be done to make our federal anti-hunger policy more resilient going forward for the next crisis, and to address the structural barriers to food affordability and access.

In his first week in office, President Biden signed an executive order that will help alleviate the hunger crisis by increasing benefits of the Pandemic-EBT program (P-EBT) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as calling for the Agriculture Department to modernize the Thrifty Food Plan to better reflect the cost of a market basket of foods upon which SNAP benefits are based. Biden’s American Rescue Plan will also significantly bolster food assistance programs around the country. Collectively, these changes should make food aid more generous and better targeted.

However, many anti-hunger innovations were born of necessity during the pandemic, and these should serve as lessons learned going forward to better prepare for a future crisis. The P-EBT program has been a success at bridging the gap in nutrition for low-income children who used to obtain meals through programs at their schools, but who could no longer do so with schools closed. This program should be studied to see if it can be converted to a Summer EBT option going forward. Furthermore, to stay ahead of a future crisis, researchers at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have suggested that Congress “leverage the P-EBT structure to create a permanent authorization for states to issue replacement benefits (similar to P-EBT, and perhaps renamed “emergency-” or E-EBT) in case of lengthy school or child care closures resulting from a future public health emergency or natural disaster.” This would make it easier for states to act quickly and not rely on Congressional action should schools need to close in the future. Finally, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici has introduced a bill that would more effectively allow schools to distribute free meals to students and other community members in need, and to extend meal service for afterschool meals and snack programs. These measures would make our systems nimbler and more responsive should a future disruption, national or local, occur.

America’s hunger crisis did not start with the pandemic, and policymakers should go further to address three key underlying causes and structural barriers to food access and affordability. First, the White House should focus on stricter antitrust enforcement in the food industry. The U.S. food and agriculture industry is concentrated, with a few large firms dominating many markets, which can drive up consumer prices on basic nutrition staples. Second, Congress should enact the HOPE Act, introduced by Reps. Joe Morelle and Jim McGovern and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) which would create online accounts that enable low-income families to apply once for all social programs they qualify for, rather than forcing them to run a bureaucratic gauntlet that makes it difficult for low-income Americans to get public assistance. Third, Congress should take up legislation, such as the bipartisan Healthy Food Access for All Americans (HFAAA) Act put forth by Sens. Mark R. Warner, Jerry Moran, Bob Casey, Shelley Moore Capito, that incentivizes food providers to set up shop in rural and hard-to-reach communities to improve food access for the estimated 40 million Americans living in “food deserts” that lack a nearby grocery store or food pantry or bank.

Food insecurity is not just a moral issue, it also has economic and social costs. Adults who go hungry are less productive and are more likely to suffer from chronic illness. Hungry children are more likely to get sick and fall behind in school. One in five Black and Hispanic households report they are unable to afford food. Poor nutrition and soaring rates of metabolic disease are a drag on the economy and contribute to rising healthcare costs and early deaths in minority and low-income families that are disproportionately more likely to experience poor nutrition and health as a result of food insecurity. And a boost in food assistance programs has even been found to speed economy recovery during a downturn and serve as an “automatic stabilizer”, an added bonus of fighting hunger during the Covid recession.

It’s time for a new national commitment to wiping out hunger and malnutrition in America. The pandemic and the associated hunger crisis have taught us valuable lessons that we should use so that we can be better prepared to face a future crisis and to curb hunger in America.

*Veronica Goodman is the Director of Social Policy at the Progressive Policy Institute. In her role, she develops and analyzes policies designed to help lift more Americans out of poverty and to strengthen the middle class, focusing on social mobility, inequality, labor, and modernizing social services. Veronica earned graduate degrees in economics and public management from Johns Hopkins University, and her undergraduate degree from The George Washington University.

You can find Goodman’s full paper on a comprehensive federal approach to the hunger crisis here.

Food Policy with Senator Tom Harkin – a Repast Interview

We are so pleased to share this terrific new episode of Repast, where Michael Roberts interviews Senator Tom Harkin on his years in Congress and his significant impact on food policy, the Harkin Institute and its focus on wellness and nutrition–including the Institute’s upcoming symposium on food as medicine--and the opportunities Senator Harkin sees for food policy with the Biden administration.

You can listen to the episode here.

Guide to Food-Based Pro Bono Activities

by Diana Winters

The Resnick Center is excited to share the publication of “Setting the Table for Food-Based Pro Bono Opportunities: A Resource Guide for Pro Bono Attorneys,” authored by Tommy Tobin, a member of the Resnick Center’s Advisory Board, and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. The guide is designed to facilitate connections between attorneys seeking meaningful pro bono work and anti-hunger organizations.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity in the United States, and the amount of resources needed to address the crisis is staggering. Attorneys seeking pro bono work can assist with direct client services, legislative research, and policy advocacy, among other things. This guide seeks to describe these opportunities and to assist in forming these partnerships.

We are grateful to Tommy Tobin, Mazon, and Perkins Coie LLP for their work on and support of the guide. The guide will be updated periodically.

Learning and eating remotely

By Daniel Pessar* (Guest Blogger)

This is the second in a series of occasional posts by Daniel Pessar on regulatory flexibility in the context of food law and the pandemic.

School administrators across the country have their work cut out for them. The shift to remote instruction has improved compliance with social distancing mandates but has also created challenges for families and invited questions about the quality of online education. Modern schools, however, are more than just places of instruction—they are also hubs of support service activity for students. From providing guidance counselors and speech therapists to nurses and probation officers, schools are equipped to do much more than just teach. And many of the services offered by schools are less easily transferable to the web than classroom learning.

chairs classroom college desks
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Food provision programs are one such example. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers federal programs including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) which exist to bring nutritious food to school-age children. The Child Nutrition Programs, including the ones listed above, cost the United State over $20 billion each year—translating to well over 7 billion meals and snacks—and are administered with the help of a long list of laws and regulations.

But like many other school services, food programs are designed to provide meals on site and not remotely. For example, program sponsors (e.g., schools, camps, or governments) must agree, in writing, to numerous rules including to, Maintain children on site while meals are consumed.”  7 CFR § 225.6(e)(15)

To allow the food programs to continue despite the virus-related upheaval, the USDA has relaxed several rules, including the requirement to have students eat on site. Although some rule waivers are being issued on a state-by-state or case-by-case basis, the USDA issued an all-states waiver in this case:

[The law and regulations require that] child nutrition program meals must be served in a congregate setting and must be consumed by participants on site. However, FNS [USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service] recognizes that in this public health emergency, waiving the congregate meal requirements is vital to ensure appropriate safety measures for the purpose of providing meals and meal supplements.

COVID–19: Child Nutrition Response #2 (March 20, 2020), Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Another important rule waiver deals with the requirement that students be present for food pickup. Given the concerns about students having to leave home in the current environment of recommended isolation—especially those students who may not feel well—the USDA granted another all-state rule waiver:

[The law and regulations] envision Program operators providing meals directly to children, not to parents and guardians picking up meals at non-congregate meal sites on behalf of their children. However, FNS recognizes that in this public health emergency, continuing to require children to come to the meal site to pick up meals may not be practical and in keeping with the goal of providing meals while also taking appropriate safety measures.

COVID–19: Child Nutrition Response #5 (March 25, 2020), Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Questions remain:  Will these meals—designed to be healthy and produced with children in mind—actually get into the hands of the intended recipients? Even if they do, will students eat the food if they have unhealthy alternatives available? These and many other questions face school administrators and policymakers trying to navigate the new environment.

But at least food provisions can be handed to parents and guardians and sent home to students. The same cannot be said for counseling and therapy services, health services, and many other offerings. Without new avenues for connecting with students and distributing all resources, the pandemic disruption will continue to result in a dramatic decrease in support services to the students who need them most.

*Daniel Pessar is a third-year student at Harvard Law School. Before law school, he worked in the real estate investment industry for six years. He is the author of three books and numerous articles. He can be contacted at dpessar@jd20.law.harvard.edu

Feeding Children During the Pandemic – HER teleconference

by Diana Winters

There has been a recent spate of articles about several studies showing that a very high number of patients who ended up hospitalized with Covid-19 had underlying health conditions, with obesity being one of the most common.[1]  These studies are largely observational and preliminary, but have still garnered attention.  At the same time, concerns about supply chain disruption and increased economic insecurity have also highlighted the need to prepare for a rise in global hunger and malnutrition.  With this backdrop, as well as the announcements that many schools across the country will be closed for the rest of the school year, Healthy Eating Research (HER) held a teleconference for media on feeding children during the pandemic, which discussed availability, distribution, and nutritional content.  HER is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which supports research on policy, systems, and environmental strategies that promote healthy eating among children.  The call addressed many issues around feeding children during this crisis, including the following.

During a normal school year, schools across the country provide approximately 30 million children with free and reduced-price school meals.  These meals provide up to two-thirds of these children’ daily nutritional needs.  As of right now, however, 48 states have closed their schools because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and 30 states have announced that schools are closed until the fall.  The impact of this on the availability and quality of food for children is immense.

There has been significant federal legislation to address feeding children during the pandemic.  This legislation includes Pandemic EBT, where states can request waivers to provide SNAP benefits for the families of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, emergency benefits, where all SNAP beneficiaries can receive emergency benefits, funds to bolster new SNAP enrollees, and legislation to adapt the emergency feeding of children during school closures to encompass summer feeding nutritional standards.

All of these actions are taking place while the Trump administration is simultaneously trying to weaken nutritional standards for school lunches.  In mid-April, a federal court struck down a 2018 Agriculture Department rule that reversed nutrition standards for sodium and whole grains in school meal programs.

Moreover, the Trump administration has taken action to cut down on SNAP benefits.  The four major reforms the administration has pushed–including making it harder for states to request time limit waivers, restricting states’ ability to make families categorically eligible based on their eligibility for another program, standardizing the method for determining state allowances, and denying noncitizens citizenship or green cards if they participate in federal aid programs—are currently stalled during the pandemic.

Dr. Sara Bleich, Professor of Public Health Policy at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, estimates that the SNAP rolls will go up to higher numbers than during the 2008 recession because of the unprecedented unemployment figures.

More legislation is needed to protect children from food insecurity and the resulting health detriments, said Dr. Bleich.  Dr. Bleich explained that we should look for the government to increase the size of SNAP benefits, which is a proven policy intervention to stimulate the economy and improve health, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for food service staff, and to provide more funding for school districts impacted by the school year closures.

Elisabet Eppes, MPH, Program Innovation Director at the National WIC Association, spoke about how the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program is adapting to the pandemic.  WIC is a special supplemental nutrition program for pregnant and postpartum women, and their infants and small children.  It is a federal program, administered and run by states, that provides nutrition education, health care referrals, breast feeding support, and nutrition funding.  It is provided through paper vouchers and electronic benefit cards.

The WIC program is facing steep challenges during the pandemic.  Many WIC office are closed as the staff helps with other pandemic-related tasks.  WIC participants are having trouble acquiring WIC food because of food supply problems at grocery stores.  At the same time, more families need WIC right now because of increased unemployment.  WIC agencies are adapting to the pandemic, and legislation has been passed and is pending to provide the program with extra money and to ease administrative requirements.  Moreover, states are exploring possibilities for online orders and curbside pickups.

The impact of the pandemic on feeding children is immense, and its effects will be felt for years to come, on our nation’s public health and on its economy.  These issues are of critical importance.

 

[1] The articles here can be found linked on the Resnick Center’s guide to food law and Covid-19 resources, found here.

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