Covid-19 is increasing food insecurity in the US
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused many to lose their jobs, homes, and loved ones. However, there’s one other area where this pandemic is hurting people but isn’t being talked about as much: food insecurity.
Food insecurity is being worsened by this pandemic due to the financial devastation it’s caused for many. Especially since most schools are online right now, so the millions of children who rely on school breakfast and lunch are no longer getting those two meals. One form of food insecurity is called a food desert.
What are food deserts and why are they a problem?
An area is designated as a food desert when a significant portion (at least 500 people or 33%) of the population living in a low-income census tract is about 1 mile (1.6 km) away from a large supermarket in urban areas, or 10 miles (16 km) away from a large supermarket in rural areas.
These may not seem like great distances, however, lower-income households are more likely to rely on public transportation for their commute and errand running needs. According to Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s 2009 National Travel Household survey, the impoverished take about 3 times as many trips on public transit as those who are more affluent.
They are also more likely to bike and about 50% more likely to walk to their destinations than those who are not impoverished. And while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using these forms of transportation it is certainly harder to carry large or even moderate amounts of groceries back home when you depend on these methods and the stores are further away. Not to mention that poor people are more likely to spend a greater portion of their income on transportation expenses. Making the decision of how often to use different modes of transportation more important, due to financial constraints.
Poverty and healthy food choices
Poor people, especially poor minorities, are often blamed for “not choosing to eat healthy foods.” But this isn’t a choice for people living in food deserts. Smaller supermarkets, or corner stores, don’t sell healthy food choices. And you have to consider the fact that healthier food choices are much more expensive than unhealthy options. The CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, got in a bit of trouble last September for an interview in which he said:
“Whole Foods has opened up stores in inner cities. We’ve opened up stores in poor areas. And we see the choices. It’s less about access and more about people making poor choices, mostly due to ignorance.”
Whole Foods is extremely expensive. I think this tweet summed up how crazy Whole Foods prices can be best:
Sorry we can’t all afford your six dollar asparagus water, Mr. Whole Foods Man. We should make better choices. pic.twitter.com/vz5aWcF3vx— Becky Bunch #BlackLivesMatter #ImpeachCuomo (@Beckybunchtvrg) September 25, 2020
Yes, Whole Food sells “Asparagus Water,” which is just 3 to 4 sticks of asparagus in a water bottle. And to think Millennials were ridiculed for avocado toast. This “healthy food” item is $6. The amount of asparagus in that bottle isn’t even enough to be a side for one person’s meal.
“I don’t think there’s an access problem. I think there’s a market demand problem. People have got to become wiser about their food choices. And if people want different foods, the market will provide it.”
The blame is not only on the poor, stores capitalize on temptation by lining the checkout lines with items, that are usually unhealthy, in order to try to make extra money once people are finished shopping and waiting to check out. However, supermarkets do this everywhere in the US, not just in poor neighborhoods. Why aren’t people who are wealthy and over-weight seen as ignorant? This is a problem that the city of Berkley hopes to address with their Healthy Checkout Policy, which will require grocery stores to replace the unhealthy items in the checkout line with healthy options.
Poverty is synonymous with stupidity in the minds of many people, especially when they are extremely wealthy. This may be why Mackey thinks that people just choose to eat poorly because of “ignorance.” He genuinely believes that poor people somehow didn’t get the memo that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Financial constraints weren’t even a reason that he considered as to why poor people buy unhealthier food options.
One solution for the poor is to buy more frozen fruits and veggies. According to CNN, frozen fruits and vegetables are just as healthy as fresh ones, cheaper, and last longer. Using frozen foods in conjunction with fresh fruits and veggies can help save money and help supplement nutrition in the diets of the working poor. But for this to work, the impoverished need access to supermarkets in their neighborhoods.
What else can be done?
Just putting stores in these neighborhoods will not solve the entire problem. The underlying socio-economic problems must be fixed too. Food desert skeptics say that the reason for food deserts isn’t because of race or ethnicity, but because of economics. However, according to the National Institutes of Health when all other factors are controlled for African-American populations had access to 50% fewer supermarket chains, and Hispanic Americans had access to about 30% fewer supermarket chains than white Americans.
Produce consumption increases by 11% for whites and 32% for African-Americans for every additional supermarket in a census tract. One study found a high correlation between increased diabetes rates and food insecurity. It found that the diabetes death rate in a food desert was twice that of areas with supermarket access. The stereotypical “fat black woman” may really be a victim of food desertification but most people in the US believe in rugged individualism so the victim is blamed instead of the circumstances.
Grocery stores vs dollar stores
Food desert skeptics also ask, “Why put stores in poor neighborhoods?” Especially when poorer neighborhoods are more likely to have higher crime rates. Theft is used as a reason by many for why there are food deserts, however, poverty is the main reason for both of these problems. Poverty encourages crime as people become increasingly desperate. Supermarkets run on razor-thin margins. So, if anything happens to them financially, like people don’t buy as much as they used to, or there’s a robbery, then the stores will close down.
This doesn’t seem to be a problem for dollar stores, however. In poor neighborhoods, dollar stores are prolific. Dollar stores give the impression of being less expensive by offering items found in other stores at an inexpensive price. However, the item quantities found in dollar stores are much less than those found in other stores, making it not as great of a deal as it appears. Dollar stores target poor areas where people don’t have as much access to transportation so that the residents will choose to shop there out of convenience. Dollar stores are displacing large supermarkets, which contribute to declining health and may contribute to the economic decline in these areas.
What about crime?
The question remains, how do we lower crime rates and increase large supermarket locations in the areas that need it most? The best solution I’ve found so far is to just give families in these areas more money. It is assumed that if poor people are just given money that they will just waste it on frivolous things. However, research shows that poor people who are given money don’t use the money on drugs and gambling. Instead, poor people use it to pay bills, start businesses, and pay for their children’s education.
The thing is, poverty leads to crime which in turn leads to more poverty. It’s a vicious cycle. Many times it aids in keeping people poor. The many fees and fines for low-level infractions combined with harsh collection tactics trap people in poverty. The criminal justice system isn’t working to help areas that are suffering the most.
A charity called GiveDirectly gives money to people in need. They mostly focus on third-world countries, but because of the Covid-19 crisis, they are now giving money to people in need in the United States. This idea treats poor people as adults, instead of children. The poor know what they need. It’s not always just about giving people a house and food.
How Covid-19 made a bad situation worse
Covid-19 continues to increase the number of people who fall into poverty, making the food desert problem even worse. The pandemic forced a reduction in riders allowed on public transportation, especially earlier in the pandemic, really limiting those who were low income and living in a food desert. Reliance on public transportation added to the fact that some grocers limited their hours worsened an already bad problem. During the pandemic, efforts to reduce the spread was hard on everyone, but it’s more difficult on the poor and those who suffered from loss of wages.
Job losses are causing increased food insecurity in Georgia by 69%, Kentucky by 118%, Louisiana by 43%, and Mississippi by 36%. At a food distribution center in Texas last Saturday, about 25,000 people lined up for food. About 40% of the people stated that this was their first time receiving food from a food bank. According to Feeding America, 1 in 9 people struggle with hunger in the US. Since the pandemic, about one-fourth of adults are either dependent on food donations or skipping meals because they couldn’t afford to buy more food.
Food banks are more strained for donations than before because industries, like casinos, restaurants, and hotels, that used to donate food have shut down or are financially struggling during the pandemic due to limitations on their operating capacities. Many restaurants have closed down this year. Supermarkets are donating fewer items because of fears of running out of products.
The pandemic also made people who normally donate to food banks stop, opting to stock up on food just in case. The increased demand and decreased donations are causing food banks to spend more money on food to meet the needs of the hungry. On top of that, their volunteers have decreased as the majority of them were retirees, who are in the high-risk group for Covid-19.
This pandemic has increased the uncertainty in many people’s lives. However, one thing’s for sure. As the pandemic continues, more help is needed. If you can, please consider donating to Feeding America, GiveDirectly, or any other charity of your choice. Afterward, check out, “5 Solutions That Alleviate Food Insecurity In The U.S.” to learn about a few long-term solutions being implemented now to combat the food desert crisis.
Links to charities: