Is The Food Safety Net Enough For The COVID-19 Recession?
On a Wednesday morning, the ninth in a row, cars snaked into the parking lot of the YMCA in Albany. At the front door, a small crew of Boy Scouts loaded boxes of food into trunks and back seats as fast as they could.
“Pop the trunk!” shouted one of the adults directing the action. Then cardboard boxes full of food landed with a thunk.
It’s a scene that was being repeated in a handful of other spots around Albany, has been repeated in other cities around Georgia and which is likely to be repeated for many months more. That’s because as the coronavirus pandemic moves into its economic recession phase, experts agree there will be many millions more hungry people in the country.
Meanwhile, some question whether the nation’s food safety net will be enough to cope and whether chronic hunger has led to the severity of the pandemic in the first place.
Not long ago Albany was one of the world’s COVID-19 hotpots. A pair of funerals acted as super spreader events that would test the limits of the local hospital and would kill almost 200. Today the COVID-19 downturn is what brought people like Keisha Hightower to the YMCA parking lot.
“It has really did a number to my budget,” Hightower said from the driver’s seat of her SUV. A bumper sticker on the back read: "Proud parent of a strong, smart and bold girl."
With her children stuck at home for every meal, Hightower said she has been blowing through her paycheck.
“It’s practically unbearable to try to make it a whole month on what you used to could before this pandemic,” Hightower said. “It’s awful.”
The higher prices she has seen lately on staples like eggs and milk have made the situation even tougher.
On this Wednesday, the food was not the USDA farm boxes full of fresh vegetables you may have heard of. It was three blocks of cheese and some chicken nuggets. There was enough left over to send home with the police who directed traffic.
Frank Sheppard heads the Columbus-based Feeding the Valley food bank, which serves southwest Georgia, including Albany. He has been relying on commodity foods pumped into the food bank system by pandemic aid from the USDA to cooperating farmers. He said there’s plenty of aid. For now.
“We'll say six months we could maintain these additional distributions and have inventories of the majority of food items anyway to be able to distribute,” Sheppard said.
After six months, some of the people who were waiting at the Albany YMCA will likely be in enough financial distress to have enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, if they weren’t enrolled already. That’s money put directly into consumers’ hands to buy groceries.
Craig Gundersen, professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois, said SNAP is the bedrock of US food aid.
“There's going to be people who are in need of assistance and if their incomes fall enough, then they'll be able to go on to SNAP,” Gundersen said.
That is what happens in any economic downturn. In that sense, Gunderson said, the COVID-19 downturn is just like any other recession.
“The safety net that was in place prior to COVID is going to be the exact same one that's after COVID,” Gundersen said. “But it's not like we're going to get chronic hunger due to this because there are these other resources that people have.”
But Frank Sheppard of Feeding the Valley said he wonders how far SNAP can go.
“We cover 6,000-square miles. So a lot of that area is very rural and, in some cases, there's just not food to buy,” Sheppard said.
The grocers just aren’t located in those rural pockets. And Gundersen says when people can't get enough food through SNAP, the often head right back to food banks.
Amber Bell is program director at the Southwest Georgia Project, which has worked since the original civil rights movement to fight hunger in the Black community. Bell echoed Frank Sheppard. What he sees in rural southwest Georgia is what she sees playing out in Albany.
“Since 2009, we've lost 12 grocery stores. and we were food insecure before those grocery stores closed,” Bell said.
She said the food aid that existed before COVID-19 might have filled bellies, but it did not nourish. She said that led to decades of bad nutrition in the region which in turn made people sick.
“So the conditions we see are diet-related cancers, high blood pressure, obesity, high hypertension, which is high blood pressure. Those issues they say exacerbate COVID-19,” Bell said.
“When I heard that I was deeply concerned,” Bell continued. “I was concerned about my family. I was concerned about my community. Not just Albany, but African Americans across the world.”
Bell’s fears bore themselves out. Most of the people COVID-19 killed in Albany were Black. Most suffered from underlying conditions.
Before the pandemic, the Southwest Georgia Project had plans to tackle chronic hunger by repurposing a vacant Winn-Dixie store into a food distribution hub for produce from Black farms. Among the community partners was Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital where most of the COVID-19 victims in Albany and southwest Georgia were treated.
The pandemic has put those plans on hold. Still, Bell with the Southwest Georgia Project said she sees an opportunity.
“If we're gonna rebuild it, let's do it right," Bell said.
For Bell that means getting people good food for better health, before the next pandemic.