Long-term programs needed as food insecurity spikes in pandemic

  • Douglas Hall is a data manager/analyst at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and lead researcher for the commission’s ongoing study of hunger in the region. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Recorder
Published: 12/20/2021 4:31:27 PM
Modified: 12/20/2021 4:31:12 PM

Several counties in Western Massachusetts experienced a spike in food insecurity last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the importance of long-term programs serving those in need.

In 2020, food insecurity grew 45% in Hampshire County, 42% in Hampden County and 40% in Franklin County compared to the previous year, according to data from Feeding America, which was analyzed and summarized in the latest installment of the Pioneer Valley COVID Recovery Dashboard, “Safety Net, Food and Hunger in the Pioneer Valley.” The online dashboard was created by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC).

“When families are facing economic turbulence and things like unemployment, their budgets are constrained,” said Douglas Hall, data manager at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and lead researcher for the project. “And we’ve been exploring the role that the local safety nets have been playing and the incidence of food insecurity and ongoing hunger among many of the families in the Pioneer Valley.”

The installment is part of a series produced by the PVPC in partnership with the Pioneer Valley Data Collaborative, which highlights the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had in Western Massachusetts.

The data dashboard also highlights the importance of statewide and regional safety nets, in particular, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) operated through the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance and food distributed by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

“There was a real surge in the demand for the services, some of which are sort of routine services that are always there for folks,” Hall said. “But there are also some new programs that came in or expansions to existing programs that help folks really to weather the worst of what’s been going on.”

The dashboard highlights that SNAP enrollment grew 32% in Franklin County, 24% in Hampshire County and 16.4% in Hampden County. Since March 2020, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts has provided an average of 877,000 meals to 91,000 clients each month.

The data on SNAP shows a disturbing trend: enrollment remains substantially higher than in pre-pandemic times, showing that many families continue to struggle even as certain areas of the economy have started to recover.

But these numbers also prove that government-funded relief programs are essential to families experiencing unemployment and food insecurity.

“Hunger or food insecurity is completely preventable,” said state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. “The fact that people are food insecure is a failure of government.”

Food insecurity is not a new issue. Before the pandemic started, almost 40 million people experienced food insecurity nationally. But the pandemic, which caused a wave of economic recession and job loss, exacerbated the issue.

“The pandemic just shined a bright light on the disparities that already existed in this country,” said U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester. “Hunger was a problem before the pandemic.”

Western Massachusetts displays trends similar to those experienced on a state and national level.

Project Bread found that household food insecurity in Massachusetts increased to 19.6% during the pandemic, from a pre-pandemic 8.2%. While the numbers have since started declining, they are still far from pre-pandemic rates.

A survey conducted in September by researchers from New York University found that nearly 15% of U.S. households reported food insecurity early in the pandemic, compared to 11% before the pandemic. The researchers surveyed 5,600 adults from across the country via social media.

According to Feeding America, a nonprofit working to end hunger in the United States, the pandemic has increased food insecurity in particular among families with children and communities of color. A 2021 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the prevalence of food insecurity for all households with children increased to 14.8% in 2020, up from 13.6% in 2019. It also increased for Black, non-Hispanic householders, going from 19.1% in 2019 to 21.7% in 2020.

The report was based on data from an annual survey conducted by the Census Bureau and it included 34,330 households.

Over the course of last year, state and federal governments have created and expanded upon relief programs. Funds from the newly passed American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) offer opportunities to invest in food banks and curb food insecurity. The Biden-Harris administration also increased SNAP benefits and expanded the Child Tax Credit.

But more needs to be done, local and state officials say.

“We have to understand that hunger is essentially a political condition,” said McGovern. “And by that, I mean that this is a solvable problem. We just need to have the political will to do it.”

McGovern has been urging the Biden administration to establish a White House Hunger Conference involving every department and agency, to identify the “holes (that) exist in our safety net.” Collaboration and a holistic approach are essential to tackle hunger, he said.

“It’s not just about one program, we need to look at a number of our systems and figure out how we can adjust them so that we can actually deal with this problem,” McGovern said.

“(The Legislature) also cares a lot about the root causes of hunger and food insecurity, and that’s economic instability, job creation, affordable housing, transportation,” Comerford said. “And so we have to see food security in that intersection as well.”

When talking about recovery, Hall said, it’s important to ensure that the programs implemented during the pandemic continue in a post-pandemic world.

“I think we did pretty well, but we need to make sure that, as we’re moving further into the recovery phase, we need to make sure that we end up somewhere that’s even better than where we started,” Hall said.

“Some of the relief that has come in the American rescue packages is short-term,” McGovern said. “We need to be looking at long-term, sustainable solutions to make sure people have enough food to feed their families.”

Claudia Chiappa writes from the Boston University Statehouse Program in Boston.

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