Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

COVID-19 Exposes Stark Inequalities Across U.S. As Thousands Struggle Daily To Find Food

‘It’s not only poor people standing in food lines, or going to food pantries and soup kitchens. Now you have the middle class and businesses that are suffering, too,’ one organizer said.

Volunteers distribute food during a drive-thru event on April 9, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. Getty Images

In Santa Cruz, California, it has become common to see people lined down the block, waiting to be served a hot lunch. They stay six feet apart, in couples or alone, helped by blue chalk directives on the sidewalk that read “stand here.” To their left, the Pacific Ocean glitters in the midday sun, and their right is flanked by hillocks lush with evergreens. But even the idyllic scenery can’t hide the urgent need driving them to gather during a pandemic—these people are hungry and have very few other options for nourishment now that crucial county and nonprofit services have limited their hours or shuttered completely in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of people experiencing food insecurity is expected to surge globally and nationally by the end of 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Before the pandemic, more than 37 million people in the U.S. struggled to stay fed. Now, massive increases in unemployment, coupled with school closures and more people staying—and eating—at home, are creating an outbreak of need that government and nonprofit food aid programs are struggling to meet. Even with offerings like “pandemic EBT,” which helps offset the lack of school lunches for children whose schools have closed, food lines are becoming an increasingly common sight. For many, this is the first time they have relied on emergency food assistance. 

“[The pandemic is] exposing the inequities of this food system. Now it’s not only poor people standing in food lines, or going to food pantries and soup kitchens. Now you have the middle class and businesses that are suffering, too,” said Karen Washington, a food activist in New York City and co-founder of Black Urban Growers, an organization that supports Black urban and rural farmers. 

“As this pandemic has continued to evolve, we are experiencing individuals who are navigating the human services realm for the first time,” explained Jason Lecuyer, director of special events for Schenectady County and a member of the Schenectady County COVID-19 Emergency Response Coalition, a partnership between local government, nonprofits, community businesses, and individuals. In March, the coalition developed a centralized hotline, headquartered at the local Boys and Girls Club, where county residents in need can call to get free food delivered directly to their homes, in addition to other critical services. Since they began on March 25, Lecuyer reported that they have distributed 9,548 food bags packed with items like fresh produce, poultry, and whole grains. 

But for the most in need, supply scarcities and limitations on gatherings have worsened a food crisis that existed long before COVID-19.

In Santa Cruz, a volunteer-run, vegan food justice movement called Food Not Bombs is responsible for feeding the line, which is composed mostly of people experiencing homelessness. Co-founder Keith McHenry has been working to provide food since a statewide shelter-in-place order was initiated in California in mid-March. At the same time, other local food sites shut down due to restrictions on indoor gatherings. Ryan Strait, a veteran who lives outdoors with his son and has been experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, said that without Food Not Bombs, he wouldn’t be eating at all.

“There are food pantries, but they are super nervous about being fined for touching people,” said Strait, who described being rejected from various food distribution sites because of his cough. “Food Not Bombs has really stepped up. They went from [providing hot meals] two times a week to seven times a week. They greatly increased the scope of what they are doing to make up for the lost food elsewhere.” 

In other parts of the country, members of the most underserved communities are reporting similar dissatisfaction with the response from local government or nonprofit food charities, many of which are buckling under the increased demand, struggling to find creative solutions to new infection control mandates, or are simply unable to overcome historical inequities entrenched in the food distribution systems. In their stead, mutual aid and other grassroots level entities are stepping up to help those whom conventional hunger relief sources are leaving behind.

“A family I know in the Bronx went to a food pantry … [and] said they were turned away because they brought their daughters, but they didn’t have masks,” said Creighton Leigh, founder of Voix Noire, a grassroots group that directs resources primarily to Black women and people with marginalized gender identities. Others, Leigh said, have struggled to physically get to food distribution locations or have found the experience of requesting aid from organizations “dehumanizing.” As a result, Voix Noire has seen a sharp rise in requests for aid—and in donations. “We have dispersed close to $50,000 in the past 10 weeks, and I don’t think we did that last year total,” said Leigh. 

“The community is going to save itself. We can’t depend on the government or some organization to save us,” said Marilyn Reyes, co-chair of the Peer Network of New York. Twice a week, she and other peer volunteers hit the Bronx loaded with sandwiches, hygiene products, and harm reduction supplies to serve people experiencing homelessness, who use drugs, and other hungry community members. “Technically, I could give them access to [food] pantries and stuff, but the lines are tremendous, and for them to travel around—they don’t have the money, and they don’t have nowhere to store the food.”

Experts say that increasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit amounts and accessibility will do more to reduce hunger than any emergency food effort can. “One of the priorities FRAC and Feeding America and other leading anti-hunger groups are pushing for in the next COVID-19 relief package is increasing the SNAP maximum benefits by 15 percent,” said Alex Ashbrook, director of special projects and initiatives at the Food Research & Action Center. “We have reams and reams of research showing how important SNAP is not only to the health and well-being of participants, but it’s also a stimulus to the economy. Every dollar of SNAP benefits generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity.”

But SNAP has limitations, too. For example, in most states it cannot currently be used to purchase food online or through a delivery app. (An online purchasing pilot program started last year has so far expanded to a dozen states, including California and New York.) For people who do not live near a grocery store, an issue that disproportionately affects tribal lands and other communities of color, accessing a retailer where SNAP benefits can be purchased is particularly risky during a pandemic.

SNAP benefits are also not available to undocumented immigrants, nor are many other types of government relief sources, like unemployment benefits, forcing them to rely on help from within their communities. Crystal Cron is delivering food during the pandemic to the Latinx community in Portland, Maine, many of whom are undocumented, through her mutual aid group, Presente! Maine. What began as a service for 50 families in mid-March has now grown to reach almost 1,000 families each week. But Cron stressed that, although the current public health and economic crises have exacerbated hunger in her community, food inequity is nothing new—and mutual aid is one of the only ways undocumented people have to combat it. 

“I think we’ve been seeing for a long time that institutions don’t have the reach that community does. We are the ones in relationship with each other on a daily basis, we are the ones sharing people’s stories, and we are the ones supporting people in times of struggle,” said Cron.

“If you’re food insecure, your immune system can’t respond well, and that makes you more susceptible to COVID. But this is a much bigger issue than COVID,” said Mariana Chilton, a professor at Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University, and director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities. “If you’re going to [order people to shelter in place], our country … must be able to ensure people have shelter and food and clean water. It’s been a massive failure on the part of our federal government and local government, and shows the weaknesses in the philanthropic world and the food assistance world.”