What Coronavirus Means for Food Insecurity

Former HRI mentee, Daphne Hernandez speaks about what happens when schools close for an extended period of time and how that increases food insecurity in children.

March 17, 2020 /

With the number of coronavirus cases increasing daily, plans are being developed and implemented to prevent further spread of the virus. One of those plans includes the closing of school districts. While that’s an important safety measure, our policymakers must keep in mind that when schools close for an extended period of time, such as during the summer, rates of food insecurity increase.



If our leaders don’t develop holistic plans to meet this need, now and in the future, our nation’s most vulnerable children will be left without a place to get a good meal during times of crisis.





Food insecurity is already more widespread in this country than most know. On a daily basis, one in seven households with children are affected by the lack of access to food, or food insecurity. The majority of these children depend on meals that they receive at school from the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program. There are over 14 million children that benefit from the school breakfast program, and almost 30 million children benefit from the National School Lunch Program.





The majority of children on these programs are low-income, and the impact of these programs has been overwhelmingly positive. School meals have been associated with reducing food insecurity among low-income families and trips to the school nurse among children. Children’s nutrition on these programs has increased, in addition to improvements in attendance, behavior and academic performance.





As it stands, the Department of Agriculture is providing waivers which would permit K-12 students to access to-go meals at a designated location if their schools are shut down. However, each state must apply for the waiver, and the waiver only applies to locations where summer meals programs are already in place. While this form of assistance will help some school-aged children, it won’t be enough to reach most low-income families.





Worse yet, when schools close it usually means at least one parent needs to stay home to take care of their children. Low-income families usually work at jobs that do not have paid sick leave. And many are paid hourly, so reduced work hours will impact their paycheck, which will further hinder their ability to afford food.





The coronavirus may be new. But we’ve known about these contributors to food insecurity for a long time.





For over the past 15 years I have been conducting research on the challenges associated with food insecurity. My work shows that if we want to reduce the impact that pandemics, epidemics or natural disasters have on food insecurity, we need to completely reframe our perception of how to reduce food insecurity.





It’s time to move away from the perspective that food insecurity will be reduced if we just hand out food. A more holistic approach is needed, both now and in anticipation of future pandemics or crises. This would help families prepare in the face of adversity. So what needs to be done?





To start, a two-week emergency supply kit of food is needed. These kits would be important to deliver prior to school closings and natural disasters occurring. After the pandemic or natural disaster subsides, these families will need to continue to receive additional food assistance as lost wages will put a financial strain on their pocketbooks.





In any pandemic or natural disaster, cleaning supplies are also needed. Cleaning supplies cannot be bought on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the most readily used food assistance program in the country. Consequently, cleaning supplies, which are currently in high demand, may not be something that low-income families have in abundance.





And finally, accessing food and cleaning supplies will require parents to have some form of transportation. One of the greatest barriers to accessing basic needs is transportation. In sprawling cities, this means driving, as public transportation does not reach into suburban areas. Transportation vouchers in the form of gas cards are needed. And if transportation vouchers are not implemented, then a home delivery system is needed.





While this holistic approach does not address every challenge that low-income families will face during a pandemic, it is a start to how we approach disaster planning. We do a good job trying to reduce the aftermath of disasters. But we need to get better at providing the most vulnerable with the materials and supplies they will need to ride out critical periods of distress.





Daphne Hernandez is the Lee and Joe Jamail Distinguished Professor and Associate Professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center – Houston, Cizik School of Nursing. She is also a Research Associate Professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at the University of Houston.



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