Food Insecurity Poses Real Threat to Many, Increasing During COVID-19

Food access issues can be complex. Hunger, not having enough food to eat, is rather straightforward, but not all food insecurity is so easy to understand. The United States Department of Agriculture defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Anyone who does not fit this definition (e.g., one who needs to skip a meal because they cannot afford food, one who is missing important nutrients because they cannot afford healthy food, et cetera) is food insecure, even if they are not going hungry.

While food security in the US has been increasing, far too many households still remain food insecure. In 2019, roughly one in ten US households experienced either low or very low food security. These households consisted of over 35 million individuals, comprised of over 24 million adults and nearly 11 million children.

Furthermore, COVID-19 has exacerbated the strain on our food supply chain. While the USDA has not yet released data on household food security in 2020, the journal “Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy” has published estimates based on expert projections. They estimate that 54 million Americans — an increase of 19 million from 2019 — will have experienced food insecurity in 2020, including 18 million children. This drastic change highlights the urgency with which this issue needs to be addressed.

There are plenty of opportunities available to help your community. You could donate to food banks, volunteer at a soup kitchen, or even just share food with your friends, family, or neighbors in need. However, these individual efforts will never stand up to what we can achieve together. Food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or the Child and Adult Care Food Program, allow people to help address these issues under a single, cohesive, organized effort. Additionally, since these programs are primarily funded through tax money, we can ensure that everyone contributes.

Yet, despite the existence of these programs, food insecurity is still an issue. It might be tempting to use this fact to justify criticism of the programs. For example, one could claim that SNAP is prone to abuse and fraud, or that the costs of running the program are too great. However, upon closer inspection, these criticisms hold little water. A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office states that only 1.5% of funds were used in illegitimate transactions. Furthermore, public SNAP data tables show that, in 2019, around 92% of funding went toward benefits, with only 8% going toward all other costs.

The cause for the inefficacy of SNAP is not with fraud or administrative costs, in fact, SNAP is not ineffective at all. The real issue is that SNAP lacks the funding needed to provide enough assistance. The average assistance given is only $1.39 per person per meal. Furthermore, around half of Americans with low food security are not even considered eligible for SNAP benefits. To say that SNAP is ineffective because it has not ended food insecurity is to call a fire extinguisher ineffective because it would not put out a forest fire.

There is a real and urgent need to expand food assistance programs. It is not only important to increase awareness, but to increase funding for and access to these programs as well. Until SNAP benefits are available to all who need them, we will continue to face food insecurity in the United States.