Webinar: Impacts of COVID-19 on Food Security and Long-term Implications and Adaptations

by Diana Winters

On September 18, I attended a webinar hosted by the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at Ohio State University on the impacts of Covid-19 on food security. The panelists included Kip Curtis, an Associate Professor in the Department of History at OSU, Mary Rodriguez, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural Communication, Education, and Leadership at OSU, Brian Snyder, the Executive Director of the Initiative for Food and Agricultural Transformation (InFACT) at OSU, and Lauren Vargo – a Program Manager at Case Western Reserve University.

The panelists discussed the enormous impact of Covid-19 on family decision-making concerning food, and the increase in the use of federal and state food assistance benefits. Rodriguez described how families had to shift their buying habits because of the pandemic. Although official advice was to acquire two weeks of food, many families had neither the financial capacity nor the infrastructure to do so, and had to shift their diets accordingly. Curtis, an environmental historian, discussed the growing importance of local food production, in the context of many crises–not just the pandemic.

Snyder analogized the food system to a river, which had reduced water flow because of the pandemic. This drop in water level exposed hazards in the system that were always there, but hidden. For example, the public became aware of shortages and surpluses in the supply chain, as well as bottlenecks and dams in production, processing, and distribution. Worker issues became visible, especially in the area of meat processing, as production slowed because of rampant disease spread amongst closely packed individuals. Moreover, the fact that approximately 50% of farmworkers are undocumented disincentivized testing and treatment, which leads to more disease spread.

Vargo pointed out how much more food is in the media now, and this webinar highlighted how food and food systems became critically important during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is by no means over. There is no more important time to address the hazards in our food supply, to prepare us not just for future crises, but for the present.

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.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑