Food insecurity continues, forcing community organizers to act

As families gather across the country to celebrate Thanksgiving and thank you, many are struggling to fill their kitchens with fresh food and groceries.

The United States has made virtually no progress toward addressing this issue of food insecurity in the past two years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 10% of U.S. households (13.8 million) were food insecure at some point during 2020, unchanged from 2019, the government said.

This problem has particularly hit black and brown communities hard.

During the pandemic, residents of Harlem, New York, leaned on local organizations like New York City’s The Brotherhood Sister Sol for resources, guidance, and food. The group has taken food insecurity issues into its own hands with a weekly grocery distribution that feeds more than 500 families in the neighborhood.

The organization says it is on track to distribute more than 1 million meals by the end of 2021.

“Every single week, families just express tremendous relief over the fact that BroSis continues to support them in these ways,” said Brittany Reyes, Sister Sol’s coordinator at BroSis.

The organization is handing out turkeys and holiday favorites this week, but community members are year-round dependent on others for food. In New York alone, about 19% of New Yorkers live in poverty, according to the City of New York.

Khary Lazarre-White, BroSis co-founder and CEO, said: “This is a community that is still desperately in need due to lack of investment in communities like Harlem and the South Bronx.”

Food insecurity means that families do not have sufficient funds and resources to provide adequate food for their household throughout the year.

About four out of 10 households with Hispanic / Latin or black parents reported food insecurity, according to a 2020 study by the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy think tank. That’s nearly three times what households with white parents reported.

Food insecurity is a symptom of major systemic problems such as poverty, said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. Low-income families are often forced to swap different kinds of necessities and expenses, and sometimes leave food off the table.

Not having consistent access to healthy food or stable food sources can have long-term effects on one’s health and well-being, especially for children and adolescents who depend on food for their developmental growth, health experts say.

“It’s really important to frame food insecurity as a public health issue,” Waxman said.

People who are food insecure are more likely to have chronic diet-related illnesses and are likely less able to cope with it, according to research from the USDA. The study also showed that food insecurity is also often associated with cognitive delays and behavioral challenges in children and adolescents.

“We are probably the richest country in history in history, yet we have food insecurity [at a level] it’s just incredibly alarming, “said Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit research organization working to eradicate poverty.

Several tools, which the Guardia calls “the country’s first line of defense against hunger”, have been shown to reduce hunger. The Federal Government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program allows poor families to purchase food at authorized grocery stores. National school meal programs help feed children while they are in school all day – a system that proved critical during the pandemic when schools closed.

However, Waxman and Guardia said these programs still have their shortcomings and need expansion. SNAP benefits are inadequate compared to local food prices in some places, and some Americans earn just above the income required to obtain these benefits.

“What we need is the political will,” the Guardia said. “There really should be no excuse for anyone to go hungry in this country.” But the expansion of those programs through the pandemic helped keep the country on track during a period when it would have been expected to implode, Waxman said.

“The problem is that we are not leaning into these problems in the long run,” Waxman said. “We have the short Band-Aid method. My concern is that even if overall unemployment improves, it is not like that for everyone, and yet we are already withdrawing all kinds of systems.”

She continued, “Will we learn from the pandemic and know that we can actually make a significant difference?”

Experts in food insecurity and the organizers of BroSis admit that the grassroots efforts for food distribution and pantry are not permanent solutions to the problem.

“We sometimes tend to assume that the charitable food system will just pick up all the pieces – and they’ve done a heroic job during the pandemic – but that’s supposed to be a solution,” Waxman said. “It should not be a primary safety net for anyone.”

Added Lazarre-White: “The only entity that can respond to the level of inequality that produces food insecurity and hunger in our country is the government. No private philanthropy can do that. Certainly no independent nonprofit can do that.”

For now, BroSis will continue to fill in the gaps – popping up every Wednesday to feed the families who depend on them.

“So I think what we need to do is frame this work as fair work,” Lazarre-White said. “The issue of fundamental rights, housing, education and food – these are things that are human rights.”

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