As the holiday season fades and the pandemic continues, the food insecurity crisis in America carries on. Food insecurity, which is defined as “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources,” already had effects that varied widely from demographic to demographic before the pandemic. In 2019, 1 in 12 non-Hispanic white individuals lived in a food-insecure household, compared with 1 in 6 Latino individuals, 1 in 5 Black, non-Hispanic individuals, and 1 in 4 Native American individuals. But with the myriad challenges posed by the pandemic, these numbers threatened to rise.
Early in the pandemic, the world’s supply chain suffered, significantly impacting the prices and availability of food. As delays mounted and meat packing plants closed, prices soared. In one month alone, the prices of meat, poultry, and fish rose by 4.3%, which was partly due to sharp drops in supply associated with closed packing plants. Each of these complications contributed to rising food costs, putting pressure on those who were already facing difficulties with providing enough food for themselves and their families.
Meat packing plants weren’t the only large-scale closures to affect food availability. As schools closed, many families who had relied upon breakfast, lunch, or after-school food programs to provide their children with enough nutrition were left to pick up the costs themselves. Families least able to afford increases in budget strain were those most heavily affected by such changes and closures.
As food banks faced higher demand from people who could no longer work or whose paychecks were no longer sufficient to purchase enough food, sourcing and maintaining the manpower necessary to meet this need became next to impossible. In order to ensure the safety of volunteers and workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, staff were drastically reduced in many food banks. At the same time, purchasing food to stock banks became more difficult because of delays and rising prices.
Despite overwhelming pressure, the percentage of food-secure households did not change from 2019 to 2020 — but this data is misleading at a glance. While rates of food security were maintained through the start of the pandemic, this was not for lack of demand or ease of supply. In fact, the Feeding America network distributed 44% more food in 2020 than it had in 2019, because of the food bankers, volunteers, and partner agencies that stood on the front line to ensure their neighbors had the food they needed.
As the pandemic progressed, however, meeting demand became more and more costly. In 2021, Feeding America asked for a 45% increase in funding from The Emergency Food Assistance Program to cover rising costs and need of food. The government and donations had carried much of the financial weight of food banks in 2020, but food banks increased their spending by 58% in 2021, while at the same time many government programs and donation support have ended.
Much of Missouri, especially the southeast, already faced high rates of food insecurity before the pandemic. In 2019, 1 in 7 children in Missouri faced hunger, and all of the counties with food insecurity rates approaching or surpassing 20% were in or near southeast Missouri.
The state’s food banks had to work hard to keep up, as an October 2020 blog post from Feeding Missouri details. Where increases of as little as 4%-5% would have once been noteworthy, banks saw leaps of 100% in demand, while simultaneously having to shut down entire volunteer rooms and contend with soaring food prices and 12-week delays on deliveries. Only with the fierce support of the community did Feeding Missouri manage to meet the needs of the people.
Tough times led to necessary progress. In 2021, five important pieces of legislation made it through the Missouri legislature in House Bill 432. Nicknamed Statewide Food Security Task Force, WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program, Afterschool Meals, USDA “Farm to Food Bank” Project, and SNAP Farmers’ Market Pilot Program, these measures created a food security task force for the state, increased those eligible to host and participate in nutrition programs, extended an important SNAP program, and mandated that plans be submitted to further a government program designed to increase local access to local food.
Of these, the food security task force was particularly highly-anticipated. The Missouri Department of Agriculture was responsible for commissioning it for the purpose of evaluating the state of food security in Missouri with stakeholders and making recommendations for improvement. According to the bill, its 25 members, drawn from both the public and private sectors, will not receive pay except to cover costs, and will be charged with investigating how readily accessible healthy food is to people in rural and urban areas alike and “identify ways in which the state could connect resources and individuals in an effort to ensure food security for all Missourians,” among other duties.
Though crucial, these changes and improvements will not ensure smooth sailing through the food insecurity crisis in 2022. Financial gaps will persist so long as the demand for food and the cost of food remain high. Donations and community support will continue to be crucial to seeing communities through these tough times.
Donate to Feeding Missouri here.