Food Access And The Coronavirus Pandemic: 4 Questions Communities Must Ask Themselves

By Hernaldo Turrillo - Mar 25, 2020
Food Access And The Coronavirus Pandemic: 4 Questions Communities Must Ask Themselves

The Coronavirus -Covid-19- pandemic has affected thousands of people already and for different reasons. Despite the magnitude of the outbreak and its direct and most obvious consequences to human lives, the crisis has left people out of work, companies shutting their doors and supermarket shelves completely empty. Communities and cities need to be aware of this situation and avoid that our most vulnerable, our elderly and households with low income, are the ones that suffer the most at the end of this.

Since the pandemic broke out, people have been stocking up on food and supplies. Rice, pasta and hygienic products among others have been on high-demand and in many supermarkets and groceries it is usual to find their shelves completely empty. Governments and local authorities have recommended stocking up on supplies in case they need to go through self-isolation or a complete lockdown. However, not everyone has the opportunity to take this precaution.

“Consider the nearly 40 million Americans who struggle with food insecurity. These households almost certainly don’t have the excess cash to stock up on groceries in case they need to isolate at home for extended periods. Think of the 30 million schoolchildren across the country who rely on school meals to fill their bellies twice a day, and the thousands of food pantries that rely on volunteers to distribute donations. And what about working families who cannot use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to order food online? For these families, the relatively modest inconveniences many Americans will confront due to disruptions in the food system could have catastrophic consequences,” says Devon Klatell Managing Director at The Rockefeller Foundation in a recent article.

Same principle can be applied to our elderly and key workers, like healthcare staff and police officers. As the panic buying left entire supermarkets completely empty, they were struggling to find fresh vegetables, milk and other essential supplies when they were out of work and going shopping groceries.

There has been a lot of coverage in recent weeks about the difficult reality for low-wage workers whose employers do not provide paid sick leave, they are to be laid off or they can’t access benefits. This puts these workers – many of whom provide food and healthcare services to their communities – in the impossible situation of having to choose between their own health and employment. There is less coverage, however, about the equally critical questions regarding how we ensure equity in access to food as our communities and countries continue to confront the coronavirus.

Communities and countries need to take measures to ensure that no one is really left behind during this crisis. That is why The Rockefeller Foundation present four questions that government officials, employers, businesses and community leaders across the country should be asking themselves right now:

  1. How can we help low-income households stock-up on food? When working families are on a tight budget, stocking up on several extra weeks of food is likely impossible. Cities and states should be educating themselves now on the best way for their communities to access and extend available benefits, and to go beyond them if necessary. Retailers, employers and community groups should consider offering matching coupons to extend the buying power for these customers temporarily to enhance preparedness.
  2. How will we feed students in need if schools close or transition to remote learning? For far too many children school lunches and breakfasts are their only reliable source of food for the day. As schools in some communities close, district officials must begin thinking about how to serve those students at home or outside of schools. Local officials, parent groups and community organizations should start thinking now about how they will get meals distributed to students and how such a program would operate.
  3. How will we support our emergency food system – particularly food banks and pantries – during what may be a long-term strain? Food banks and pantries provide a vital service to food insecure households, and they run on donations and volunteers. This infrastructure will be critically important in the weeks and months to come, but is also at risk of running out of supplies and struggling to recruit volunteers. We must consider ways to bolster this system, whether through corporate volunteerism, donations, or philanthropic support.
  4. How will we ensure equitable food distribution, especially if we move to delivery-based retail models? Many communities have emergency feeding plans that require large groups to congregate in order to receive food in post-disaster settings. This, of course, makes sense in response to a natural disaster, but has obvious risks during an infectious disease outbreak. It is more likely we will turn to delivery-based models of food distribution. Undocumented populations and other vulnerable groups may be hesitant to participate in at-home services. If communities need to move to a delivery-based or alternative food distribution models, we must ensure that these customers and other vulnerable groups have the means to participate in these alternative supply chains.

Fortunately, some community groups, food bank associations, school districts and policymakers have started to take action.

In the UK, for example, major supermarket companies had announced the "golden" hour to help the elderly and NHS workers buy essential supplies and groceries during the coronavirus pandemic. Likewise, in the US, some organizations are working quickly to expand access to food-related services and build more flexibility into the system to ensure that all Americans are able to feed themselves and their families, even in these uncertain times. One of those is The Rockefeller Foundation, who will be reaching out to these groups and their own partners in the coming weeks to see how they can best support their efforts.

“I hope leaders around the country will do the same,” added Devon Klatell.

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