Stephen Tate gives a bag of food to a person at the CHRIS 180 drive-up food distribution April 24, 2020. The organization is making 600 food deliveries twice a week and has also started allowing people to drive up and receive food. Ben@BenGray.com for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Ben@bengray.com
Photo: Ben@bengray.com

Opinion: The coronavirus crisis is a food security crisis too

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, food insecurity was one of the greatest challenges facing American families.

According to the most recent USDA report on food insecurity in the United States, 37.2 million people, including 11.2 million children, lived in food-insecure households. The economic impact of coronavirus is causing these numbers to soar, with a new report by the nonprofit Feeding America showing the number of food-insecure children could rise to 18 million because of coronavirus.

As chairs of the House Appropriations Committee (Lowey) and its Subcommittee on Agriculture-Rural Development-FDA (Bishop), we are on the frontlines of the fight in Congress to fund a robust response to coronavirus and to ensure that Americans do not go hungry during this time of crisis.

Congress passed and the President signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Among its provisions, the legislation strengthened food security initiatives through additional investments in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and food banks. It also made sure that children who depend on free and reduced-priced meals have access to food during school and childcare center closures.

This funding was an important step, but far more resources are needed to combat the food insecurity crisis.

Across the country, at the same time as millions of people are losing their jobs and sources of income, their food needs are rising. In Georgia, Atlanta Community Food Bank CEO Kyle Waide estimates that the number of people getting food from food drives and other emergency sources has increased as much as 40 percent during this pandemic.

As the House now turns to its next relief bill, we are fighting to ensure that Congress provides strong additional support for families to access healthy food.

While both the Families First Act and the CARES Act include emergency benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), it’s clear that current SNAP benefits are insufficient, even without the compounding effects of coronavirus. By providing at least a 15 percent increase to the maximum household SNAP benefits, we can not only keep more Americans from going hungry, we can generate economic activity and stimulate local economies.

Of course, we also need to provide as much funding as necessary to meet increases in SNAP participation caused by coronavirus and provide additional flexibilities to states to provide effective service and address the needs of participants.

With more children staying home from school because of closures, families will go through their benefits faster, increasing the likelihood that many go hungry. It is our moral imperative to prevent that from happening.

We must also help local food banks meet increased demand during this emergency. Congress has provided $850 million for the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to address coronavirus-related needs so far, but as food banks are stretched beyond capacity, we may need to dramatically scale up assistance.

At the same time, schools are going to great lengths and incurring significant costs to continue feeding our children. Schools could not have planned for this, and we must ensure local school district budgets are held harmless for the unavoidable costs they are incurring to feed our children during this crisis.

The coronavirus crisis is only making America’s food crisis worse. We have an obligation as a nation to protect the health and lives of the American people. As Congress works on its next relief package, we will fight tirelessly on behalf of all Americans, especially the most-vulnerable, so that everyone can put food on the table.

U.S. Rep. Sanford D. Bishop, a Democrat, represents Georgia’s 2nd District and is chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies. U.S. Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a Democrat, represents New York’s 17th District and is chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.

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