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July 2, 2020
One of the most devastating effects of COVID-19 has been the sheer number of people it has left without reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. Even prior to the pandemic, Feeding America estimated about 11.1% of New York State residents and 16.9% of children experienced food insecurity, meaning they at times lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life and faced limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.
Pre-pandemic estimates of the share of the population experiencing food insecurity in New York City were already high in some boroughs, totaling nearly 318,000 children citywide.
About one in five children in the Bronx and Brooklyn experienced food insecurity, compared to about one in seven children in Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island.
Source: Feeding America. “Child Food Insecurity in New York 2018.”
Over one million New Yorkers were experiencing food insecurity prior to the pandemic, with many more only one paycheck away from joining them. The pandemic has caused widespread job loss and economic hardship for too many New Yorkers. As a result, Mayor de Blasio estimated that roughly two million residents would experience food insecurity before the end of the pandemic. A survey by Hunger Free America found that in mid-April, 38% of parents in New York City reported cutting the size of meals or skipping meals for their children because they could not afford food in the previous month. The effect of this pandemic are falling disproportionately on Black and brown families and communities, exacerbating the long-standing effects of systemic racism and racial and economic disparities.
Food insecurity has a particularly devastating impact on children, leading to a host of short- and long-term effects on their physical and mental health. Children in food insecure households are more likely to be hospitalized and suffer from chronic health conditions like asthma. They are also more likely to experience depression and suicidal ideation and face difficulty performing well at school. Despite our country’s enormous wealth, more than 13 million children are food insecure each year – an already staggering number that is at risk of swelling in the face of COVID-19.
In the face of the overwhelming need, the city, nonprofit organizations, and communities have sprung into action.
Numerous human services organizations in New York have had to dramatically ramp up their anti-hunger operations to meet growing demand. A June 2020 report from the Food Bank for New York City found that more than half of food pantries and soup kitchens surveyed reported running out of food during April, and 70% reported serving people who had traveled from another borough. 79% of the increased visitors to food banks and soup kitchens were families with children. In large part because they are run by seniors at risk of infection, nearly 40% of the city’s soup kitchens and food pantries were forced to close; 73% of those were concentrated in high-needs areas. Many of these food banks and soup kitchens are beginning to reopen as the city begins to recover. Yet many are still turning people away and seeing overwhelming demand that is likely to grow without new resources to support communities.
In addition, many organizations that have not traditionally focused on anti-hunger initiatives have had to shift their resources to providing meals to the communities they serve.
Throughout New York City, community members have developed mutual aid networks and other volunteer networks to help their neighbors access food and other basic needs. New York Cares for instance, a nonprofit focused on mobilizing volunteers, reports delivering more than 1.5 million meals during this crisis. In a Census survey intended to determine the impact of COVID-19, households with children in the New York Metropolitan Statistical area who received free meals or groceries reported they were most likely to get help from religious organizations, schools, and their family, friends, and neighbors.
New York City’s child welfare programs have also had to pivot quickly to address community needs, including by assisting with emergency food assistance and assisting with enrollment for unemployment and safety net services. Community-based preventive services have been particularly important for immigrant communities fearful of recent anti-immigrant federal policies and heightened Immigration Custom Enforcement activity. Youth service providers also play an important role by identifying the needs of their communities and connecting them to nutritional assistance. Youth engagement over the summer will be vital to meeting the emerging educational, health and economic needs of children and families, including by connecting them to nutritional supports.
For its part, New York City agencies have significantly increased their efforts to serve New Yorkers. In March, Mayor de Blasio established a food czar to manage the city’s food distribution efforts. The City Council has pledged $25 million for 10 of the city’s leading food pantries and soup kitchens, and the Mayor has announced the City is spending $450 million on food efforts. More than 435 school Meal Hubs have been established across the city, providing three free meals a day to any New Yorker who needs them. The majority of these Meal Hubs will remain open over the summer. The City has also created the GetFoodNYC food delivery program to deliver food to those who cannot safely seek food in-person. New York City has given out more than 22 million free grab-and-go meals at public school buildings, and roughly one million meals a day as part of the city’s emergency home delivery program.
As important as efforts by the City, State, and nonprofits have been, they face a range of challenges impeding access to food, not least of which is the overwhelming number of people who need assistance. Despite the massive operation the City is undertaken, the City has at times struggled to reach everyone in need with high-quality, nutritional food. Not all families live near a Meal Hub and may lack the time, transportation options, or child care support they need to reach one. Available city, state, and federal funds often go to larger citywide initiatives and do not always make their way to smaller nonprofits and CBOs embedded in the community.
Immigrant families in particular face barriers to nutritional support, in part because undocumented Americans and mixed-status families have been almost universally excluded from federal COVID-19 relief efforts, including unemployment insurance and stimulus payments. Immigrant families may also fear to access safety net services due to federal policies like changes to the “public charge” rule, which made many immigrants afraid that accessing these benefits would jeopardize their immigration status and potential pathway to citizenship. Prior to the pandemic, data from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs illustrated the likely chilling effect of the public charge. From January 2018 to January 2019, there was a substantial decline in SNAP enrollment among non-citizens. This decreased caseload was most pronounced among Hispanic recipients. These challenges point to the need to increase targeted, linguistically and culturally responsive supports to immigrant communities.
NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and NYC Department of Social Services. “Fact Sheet: SNAP Enrollment Trends in New York City, June 2019.”
NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and NYC Department of Social Services. “Fact Sheet: SNAP Enrollment Trends in New York City, June 2019.”
Above all, New York is facing a depth of need that has strained its current resources and will continue to do so as the economic repercussions of this crisis persist. In NYC alone, food stamp applications had tripled, and cash assistance applications had doubled by May. To fully address the anticipated two million people who will face food insecurity in New York City, New York must receive additional assistance from the federal government.
Food banks and food pantries play an essential role in combatting food insecurity, and our City, State, and Federal governments must all commit additional resources to strengthen them. However, emergency food assistance cannot alone meet the need; we must also maximize investment in federal nutritional programs, including SNAP, WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and school meals. Hunger Free America estimates that for every meal provided by their food banks, SNAP provides nine. Additionally, every dollar spent in SNAP benefits helps generate between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity. Maximizing uptake of federal nutritional assistance programs is critical for decreasing food insecurity and increasing the amount of city and state resources available to address demand.
Congress has passed four federal relief packages, several of which included provisions targeted at food insecurity. The Families First Act included $500 million for WIC and $400 million for The Emergency food Assistance Program, and enabled states to apply for a host of waivers to increase access to SNAP, WIC, school meals, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The CARES Act included $15.5 billion to cover the projected increase in SNAP applications and the costs of relief authorized in the Families First Act. However, none of the federal stimulus bills increased the minimum or maximum monthly SNAP amount.
New York State has taken advantage of a number of newly authorized federal waivers, including one allowing nearly 750,000 low-income individuals and families enrolled in SNAP to receive the maximum allowable SNAP benefit in May. These waivers have allowed New York State to offer non-congregate—”grab-and-go”—meal distribution through summer meals programs and the Child and Adult Care Food Program, with flexibility to allow a parent or guardian to pick up multiple meals for the whole family. Most counties in New York have also extended SNAP benefits for six months for households that would have had to recertify for SNAP or other any time between March and June. Importantly, individuals are also now able to access SNAP and other safety net services online.
Another critical federal waiver approval has been for Pandemic EBT (P-EBT), which is designed to provide benefits to families of children who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. More than two million children age 2 to 21 are eligible in New York, and P-EBT would allow an estimated $880 million in food benefits to the families of these children. The benefits themselves can be loaded onto a SNAP or EBT card and used with SNAP retailers, including online. There is no income or eligibility test once the state has identified a child as eligible. The benefit itself is equal to the federal reimbursement for breakfast and lunch for each day school has been closed, which comes out to $420 per student. Children already receiving SNAP or public assistance (approximately 756,000 students) began receiving benefits in March, while students who receive Medicaid in New York State (approximately 513,000 students) should receive benefits near the end of June. All remaining students (approximately 800,000) should begin receiving benefits in July or August. However, significant work remains to identify and reach all eligible children; adjust for address changes; increase outreach and education on the program; and promote the state’s assistance hotline.
As important as it is, P-EBTwill be a one-time payment unless Congress acts, and it is clear that needs will extend well beyond the summer. Unfortunately, the economic strains of the pandemic are being seen in budget decisions at the federal, state, and local level. In the face of falling tax revenue and a growing deficit, Governor Cuomo has indicated he may cut numerous state programs by 20%. At the City level, the Mayor has stated his commitment to combatting food insecurity. The restoration of funding for community-based organizations and summer programs will be essential for meeting the nutritional needs of communities.
The concerted efforts at the city, state, and federal level have in many ways helped stave off an explosion in food insecurity and could prevent a rise in poverty rates if resources are adequate. But federal funds are on track to dry up soon without additional action by Congress, and government agencies and nonprofit organizations cannot continue to meet demand without additional resources. Given the depth of need, it is more important than ever that both New York City and New York State support emergency food assistance and increase education and outreach funding to inform New Yorkers about how to access the services available to them. The pandemic has exacerbated deep inequities in access to nutritional supports; New York must have the creativity and commitment to see New Yorkers through this crisis and beyond.
Though additional federal funding and flexibility has been critically important for combatting food insecurity, it has only begun to scratch the surface of the need. Despite the scope of the need nationally — as many as 18 million children could be food insecure in 2020 — the Senate has dragged its feet in passing a fifth stimulus package to help struggling Americans. We know that the economic impacts of this pandemic will be felt for years to come, yet the bulk of federal recovery efforts – such as unemployment insurance, stimulus payments, and SNAP increases – are on the verge of expiring. Without additional action, New Yorkers and others throughout the country will face renewed hardship without the supports that have kept many of them afloat.
On May 15th, the House passed H.R. 6800, the HEROES Act. This bill includes a host of provisions that will be essential for helping children and families recover from this crisis, including a number of important proposals that target food insecurity. These include:
If New York and the country are to recover, Congress must act and provide additional support to struggling communities, including nutritional support. You can help by reaching out to your Senators and urging them to pass a comprehensive COVID relief package that supports families in New York and across the country.