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"Staggering" need: COVID-19 has led to rising levels in food insecurity across the U.S.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit Mississippi earlier this year, Lee County had seen a significant decrease in food insecurity.

"Our food insecurity rate was at about 16.2%," said Jason Martin, the executive director of the Tupelo/Lee County Hunger Coalition. This figure is slightly higher than the food insecurity for the state as a whole, as the USDA found in 2019 that Mississippi had the highest rate in the country at 15.7%.

However, with the arrival of COVID-19 cases in the state, Martin said that several of the groups providing food and resources saw significant changes. In more rural areas with elderly populations, pantries saw a decrease in clients, which Martin said was likely due to the fear of catching the virus. Martin said that he had heard from people that they were too afraid to go to a food bank in person, and only relented when they ran out of food at home.

In more urban areas, however, he said that pantries saw a 40% increase in people requiring service.

"The clients that were served there were a lot of employees or people who had recently been laid off," Martin said about urban food banks. "Without a doubt, our Black and Brown people in our community are probably suffering at a greater rate than Caucasian people," Martin said. Black people have also been disproportionately affected by the virus, and these deaths in turn affect food security. Martin gave the example of an African-American woman in her seventies who is now caring for her grandchildren after her child died of COVID-19, and relying on local food charities.

"The impact is incredible," Martin said of the virus.

What Martin is seeing in Mississippi has been happening all over the country. A June report by the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at Northwestern University found that food insecurity had doubled overall and tripled among families with children due to the pandemic, relying on data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey.

One of the authors of that report, IPR director Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, wrote in a September report for the Food, Research and Action Center that the number of adults who reported that members of their family often did not have enough to eat rose from nearly 8 million in 2018 to between 26 and 29 million between this April and July.

In an interview with CBS News, Schanzenbach said that she was "confident" that this pattern of rising food insecurity would "continue to hold."

"I do feel very comfortable saying it's really elevated," Schanzenbach said.

Schanzenbach's research has found that Black and Hispanic families are seeing particularly dramatic rises in food insecurity. In 2018, food insecurity among Black adults was more than three times that among White adults. That pattern has largely held in the era of COVID-19, with food insecurity at 7% among White respondents and 20% among Black respondents. The rate is also higher among Latino respondents than their White and Asian counterparts, with 19% of Latino adults overall reporting that the families often do not have enough to eat. 

Solving this crisis isn't difficult, Schanzenbach said, but is only a question of funding. She said that the problem could be mitigated with more funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and the restoration of a popular unemployment benefit which provided $600 per week on top of unemployment insurance. The benefit expired at the end of July.

"That's not hard to solve. Schools, that is hard to solve," Schanzenbach said, comparing the problem of mitigating food insecurity to reopening schools to in-person learning. "Really, when it comes to feeding people, that's just money."

Congress and the White House have been at a stalemate in negotiations over a new coronavirus relief bill for months. The unemployment benefits established by the bipartisan CARES Act in March expired in August because Democrats and Republicans were unable to come to an agreement over the size of the benefit going forward.

The House passed a $3.4 trillion relief bill in May, and then passed a slimmed-down $2.4 trillion version last month. Both of these bills would have included additional funding for nutrition assistance. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he and the Republican majority in the Senate will not accept any proposal costing more than $2 trillion.

On October 6, President Trump abruptly announced that he was instructing his representatives to stop negotiating with Democrats over a relief bill until after the election. He later suggested that he was willing to consider signing standalone bills which offered direct financial assistance to Americans and aided the flailing airline industry. However, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that she will not consider any standalone bill without a guarantee of support for larger relief legislation.

"There is no standalone bill without a bigger bill," Pelosi told reporters on Thursday.

Mr. Trump then tweeted on Friday that "Covid Relief Negotiations are moving along," indicating White House officials and House Democrats may be able to come to a deal. On Tuesday, the president urged lawmakers to "go big or go home" with a stimulus bill. But it's far from certain that the Republican-controlled Senate would approve any legislation larger than $1.5 trillion, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the Senate will vote on its own bill later this month.

Luis Guardia, the president of the Food, Research and Action Center, told CBS News in an interview that the federal government needs to do more to address food insecurity.

Guardia recommended that Congress raise the maximum SNAP benefits by 15%, noting the success of the benefit increase provided by the 2009 Recovery Act in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession.

"It's our nation's first line of defense against hunger. It provides a tremendously efficient economic stimulus to the country," Guardia said about SNAP. "We're sort of wondering why they still haven't moved forward on increasing the SNAP benefits."

During an economic downturn, more individuals tend to enroll in SNAP. These enrollees then spend this federal assistance, which in turn generates income for those producing, transporting and selling the food. A 2019 analysis by the USDA Economic Research Service found that a $1 billion increase in SNAP benefits could increase the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by $1.54 billion and support nearly 14,000 jobs.

The federal government has taken some critical steps to address food insecurity. The president signed a continuing resolution funding the government through December 11 which included funds for child nutrition assistance. It extended the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Program (P-EBT), which provides families with an EBT card to purchase food to replace school meals, through September 2021. Guardia said that the P-EBT program had helped to lift two to three million children out of hunger.

Unfortunately, food insecurity is intertwined with economic instability. According to the biweekly data release at the end of September from the Household Pulse Survey, 24% of adults expect someone in their household to have a loss in employment income in the upcoming four weeks.

Schanzenbach noted that the current economic downturn differed from previous crises because more women than men have lost their jobs, affecting not only them but the numerous children who live with single mothers. Another issue is the large number of Americans who haven't lost their jobs, but have seen a significant loss in income due to working fewer hours.

As of September, the U.S. has only regained about half of the 22 million jobs lost in March and April as the coronavirus pandemic spread. As people continue to lose income, increased food insecurity will follow.

"The amount of need that we've seen is staggering," Schanzenbach said. "I just never expected to see anything like this."

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