The number is five times higher than before the coronavirus crisis. And at the recent Democratic and Republican conventions nobody spoke of the hunger ravaging 54 million people in this country, a number that comes close to the levels of the Great Depression.
By: Jenny Manrique
When Jovanna Lopez realized that the food that immigrants, Blacks and Native Americans received, after waiting in long lines, at the food banks in San Antonio, Texas, was expired or rotten, she tasked herself with working so that these communities could get access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Even more so when organic markets were brimming with producers who only focused on the well-off customers, with astronomic prices, and who refused food coupons.
That’s how, in 2015, this food promoter co-founded People’s Nite Market, a nocturnal market, where nutritious foods replaced the ruined avocados and salads that were being distributed in the food donations. “The situation was difficult before COVID-19,” said Lopez during a press conference organized by Ethnic Media Services. “But when the pandemic started all this poverty and hunger rose and the people with disabilities, or without access to transportation to go anywhere, or even those with immunological problems, all had to stop eating.”
One 85-year-old resident was just eating bread for weeks because no one could visit her due to social distancing, until Lopez’s organization took her a box of rice and beans. Since the beginning of June, thanks to a hard-won grant of $600,000 from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the People’s Nite Market has been able to feed 150,000 families in the area, including undocumented immigrants, with the weekly delivery of 5,000 boxes of products like fruit, vegetables, eggs and rice.
According to Lopez, the San Antonio Housing Authority decided to cancel the food delivery as soon as COVID started and people were trying to help each other, especially those with immunological problems or those under 60, since aid to young people was scarce. “I spoke with a lot of activists and we had the residents start their own community network to access all the resources they might need.”
As an urban farmer, Lopez works with the Garcia Street Urban Farm, a four-acre farm in the western part of San Antonio. It allows people to grow their own food. But this model, though successful, requires an initial investment of $20,000 that many people don’t have. “We’re fighting to get the development department to change its use of public space policies and the government to support community organizations so that families may be farmers,” Lopez pointed out.
54 million hungry people
The situation in San Antonio is the microcosm of a panorama that pales nationally. According to the Census Office weekly surveys (analyzed by the Hamilton Center on Budget and Policy Priorities), in the first two weeks of August, around 14 million children were not receiving the food they need. This amount is equal to the minors living in one-sixth of American homes and is five times higher than before the pandemic.
And according to the economic model by Feeding America, a non-profit organization that has a national network of more than 200 food banks, 54 million people, including 18 million children, will experience food insecurity in 2020. During the Great Depression of 1929 the number was 60 million.
“Since the middle of March we have seen an increase in scarcity of food across the country,” said Ami L. McReynolds, Chief Equity and Programs Officer at Feeding America, an organization that was already helping 37 million people before COVID at 60,000 distribution centers in all the United States.
“The cost of living keeps going up and people are being left without food because their income covers the basic needs of housing, food and transportation. But food costs are flexible. They are the first to get cut when there are problems with resources in the home,” McReynolds added.
Native American, Black and immigrant communities suffer 2.5 times more hunger that white people, and are more affected by unemployment, which is already close to 11%. These households can cover a maximum of $400 in emergencies, have less access to transportation in order to go to the food distribution points, and due to discriminatory practices, they are not homeowners so they live in neighborhoods with less infrastructure and access. Not to mention that they have been the most affected by COVID-19.
“There has been a 60% increase in our services during the pandemic. Many individuals that now come here to our food centers used to be volunteers or donors of the food banks. They are some of our most recent customers,” McReynolds sustained.
Their organization has mutated to new distribution models, like grocery and canned food home deliveries, in order to minimize contact with people, especially senior citizens, of which it is estimated that there are 5.5 million going hungry. There are also technological applications, through which people can order food on line from nearby supermarkets in order to reduce lines at satellite distribution sites. And many banks that work specifically with Latino communities have created alliances with grass root organizations to understand cultural preferences as far as food and to reduce the trust barriers as far as access.
“We know that fear prevents access to food. It’s a concern. We want communities to feel comfortable and safe coming to these centers.”
McReynolds says that even though they have the support of a network of almost 2 million volunteers and even the National Guard, which helps to maintain the health protocols dictated by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), they are still looking for allies.
Feeding America, for example, provides only one-ninth of what federal programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps) and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) provide. But in the new relief packages to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, resources for these programs run the risk of being cut or approved with insufficient funds.
“Republicans as well as Democrats want to pass certain aid, but the problem is that they want it to be one third of what was approved by the House of Representatives,” said Reverend David Beckmann, president of the Bread for the World institute. “Cutting programs like SNAP in schools, even when they’re closed, will be devastating for many people.”
Beckmann also reminded that this federal aid is not available for undocumented people. Even for resident immigrants, the change by the current administration to the public charge law, makes them hesitant to request aid due to fear of affecting their future immigration legalization process. That’s why other measures are urgent, like immigration and labor reform in order to end hunger, because “it is not enough to just give people food, rather people must be allowed to earn that food.”
The expert said, however, that the absence of the topic at the Democratic and Republican conventions reflects the impact of consultants, who have asked politicians to not use the word ‘poverty’ in the richest country in the world. “Joe Biden’s program would give us a better option to create a healthier economy and reduce poverty,” said Beckmann about the Democratic candidate’s platform. “We can end hunger in eight years if we wanted to,” he concluded.