The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many harms: illness, death, and economic pain. Also high on that list is the increase in hunger.
Look at the news and you’ll see long lines at food pantries and soup kitchens. You’ll hear about families struggling to put food on the table after losing employment and income. Surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau found that, in July, 12% of New Yorkers experienced food scarcity, meaning that they sometimes or often hadn’t have enough to eat in the past week; one-third of those reported having had enough food prior to the pandemic. And we see stark racial and ethnic disparities in food access, with Blacks and Hispanics experiencing food scarcity at rates three to four times higher than white New Yorkers during the pandemic.
With grim news like that, everyone is searching for silver linings. They are hard to find, but they are there. The pandemic upended some old ways of providing health and human services and forced us to get creative in the face of growing needs. An old proverb goes, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and that has been proven true. We’ve seen real innovation over the last six months, leading to new opportunities and mechanisms to ensure that more New Yorkers have the food they need to be healthy and thrive. Here are just a few examples:
GetFoodNYC: New York City’s COVID-19 emergency food distribution program has distributed millions of meals throughout the City since April. New York City schools — which pre-pandemic provided free breakfast and lunch to all students — have been transformed into critical sites for distributing free grab-and-go meals for children as well as adults in need. Free meals have also been made available at grocery stores and farmers markets. The City is also providing home deliveries of free food to those residents who are sheltering in place. Organizations like Community Food Advocates have been critical partners in these efforts.
New York State Division of Veterans’ Services/HelloFresh: Governor Cuomo recently announced the expansion of a partnership between meal kit service HelloFresh and the New York State Division of Veterans’ Services to ensure that veterans and military families have the food they need during the pandemic. The program delivered 65,000 meal kits with fresh foods and recipes over the summer and now plans to provide an additional 150,000 meal kits through the end of the year.
AdkAction: Organizations across the State are growing, sourcing, packaging, and distributing healthy and fresh food and meals to families in their communities. For example, AdkAction in the North Country has created and distributed emergency food packages that contain one week’s worth of healthy meals. The food is purchased from local farms and delivered using paid local labor. AdkAction is transitioning its meal distribution to a mobile market that accepts SNAP, Double Up Food Bucks, and other incentives.
Plentiful: A public-private partnership created the Plentiful app to “improve dignity and efficiency at food pantries.” Plentiful uses geocoding that allows clients to locate a nearby food pantry or soup kitchen that’s open and make an appointment to pick up groceries or eat a meal. This innovation helps cut down on long lines and wait times — which are especially problematic during the pandemic — and enables emergency food providers to better prepare and plan to meet the needs and preferences of their clients. You can also designate a shopper — a friend, a family member, a neighbor — to pick up your order for you if you’re sheltering in place.
Foodlink: Based in Rochester and serving a 10-county region, Foodlink is one of New York State’s largest and most innovative food banks. Foodlink shifted operations early in the pandemic to respond to the food system disruptions created by COVID-19. Through the State’s Nourish New York initiative, Foodlink had purchased nearly 700,000 pounds of surplus food from local farmers between May and July. Foodlink has been working with local partners to package that food into emergency supply boxes and deliver them to families via drive-through, no-contact distribution sites across the region. The program has been a win-win, helping to support farmers as well as hungry families and to reduce food waste.
COVID-19 made the food security problem worse but it also created new opportunities. The task before us now is to ensure that we can sustain these innovative models throughout and beyond the pandemic. Policymakers are paying attention. At the federal level, congressional action established a P-EBT (Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer) program that provides $420 to families who have lost access to school food benefits. New York is also one of many states receiving additional emergency funds for SNAP during the pandemic, but that supplemental funding is slated to expire at the end of September absent additional federal action. Lawmakers in New York are also focused on increasing food security. In the past month, I’ve submitted testimony for two legislative hearings on the topic.
2020 has been an especially tough year. Families who were already living close to the edge have been pushed over. People who never had to use the food safety net are now reliant on it to put food on their tables. It will take a long time to establish wider food security. In the meantime, private and public entities are finding opportunities within the crisis to do things in new ways. It is unknown who first said, “necessity is the mother of invention,” but Plato’s Republic says, “our need will be the real creator.” Throughout history, it seems we have found a way. New York will keep finding new ways to meet today’s challenges.
By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York State Health Foundation
Published in Medium on September 30, 2020