Several times during the pandemic, the nation’s shocked attention has been drawn by photos of massive lines at food banks. That attention includes President Joe Biden, who has pushed to combat hunger, once citing those images of lines “half a mile each, just to get a box of food.” Biden has more than words, though.
Biden’s administration has settled a legal case originally brought against the Trump administration for denying nutrition assistance increases to the very poorest families, the ones that need it the most. Because those families already got the maximum amount of nutrition assistance, or very close to it, they didn’t benefit from increases passed by Congress, and the Trump administration wasn’t going to do anything about it. By allowing that increase to the poorest 40% of households, with 25 million people living in them, the Biden administration increases federal food aid by $1 billion a month—money that goes to those who need it most.
Congress did also pass increases in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits that reached many more families, many of which had increased need because of the coronavirus pandemic. Families have also benefited from Pandemic-EBT, which helps replace the meals kids usually get in school. And, of course, in addition to the checks many people have gotten through COVID-19 relief packages, most recently the American Rescue Plan, soon many families with children will also be getting an expanded child tax credit, paid monthly.
The New York Times interviewed a single mother of two who had lost her job early in the pandemic, not gotten unemployment benefits, and been skipping meals and relying on food pantries to make her family’s food stamps stretch to longer than three weeks. When her aid increased, she refused to use the additional money, worried she would get in trouble. But between the SNAP increase, an increase for produce purchase in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and her younger child qualifying for Pandemic-EBT along with her older child, Dakota Kirby’s total monthly aid went from $665 to $930—“a big old jump” that would “help tremendously,” she told the Times reporter after being told that she was not going to get in trouble for spending it.
This help is desperately needed, and not just by a few people. A Census Bureau survey in March found that 11% of adults said their households sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat just in the preceding seven days. Over the course of 2021, 42 million people in the U.S., including 13 million children, are likely to experience food insecurity, according to estimates from Feeding America. That’s one in six children.
The need is not evenly distributed, though. Food insecurity is always a racial equity and gender equity issue, and COVID-19 has tended to increase inequities, not reduce them. Feeding America projects that, in 2021, 21% of Black people will face food insecurity, while just 11% of white people do.
In 2020, the skyrocketing unemployment and associated economic need was a major strain on the ability of food banks and food pantries to keep up with the increased need for their services. “Data from Feeding America, a national network of most food banks in the U.S., shows that its members dispensed far more in the last three months of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019,” the Associated Press reported last week. “The food banks that agreed to let Feeding America publicly share their data, 180 out of 200 total, collectively distributed far more food—about 42%—during the last quarter of 2020 than in the same period of 2019.”
The very people who run food banks and other charitable food assistance will tell you that they cannot handle the need of a major crisis like the coronavirus pandemic has been. That needs to happen through government.
“If you take the pressure off the charitable system by connecting people to SNAP, then the charitable system can respond to the needs of people who don’t qualify,” Kate Maehr, director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, told the Times.
With Democrats running the federal government, that needed expansion of aid is happening, to a great extent. One key challenge now—in addition to strengthening the economy by creating good jobs—will be making some of these temporary pandemic aid programs permanent.