The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congress must prioritize food assistance as hunger worsens

Volunteers for Feeding Tampa Bay and other groups distribute food at Hillsborough Community College on Saturday in Tampa. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

THE NOVEL coronavirus has triggered a spike in food insecurity among Americans. Though many groups are racing to feed their neighbors with creative and generous efforts, they cannot possibly meet the staggering need that is already three times as severe as during the worst of the Great Recession, by some measures. In the next coronavirus legislation, Congress must address the unfolding hunger crisis.

New data shows that early predictions of coronavirus-inflicted hunger are coming true, disproportionately affecting communities of color. Food insecurity occurs in a household when a lack of resources leads to limited or uncertain access to enough food. A recent Brookings Institution survey found that more than 1 in 5 U.S. households were food insecure at the end of April.

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The picture for young children is particularly frightening: Food insecurity affected an astonishing 40.9 percent of households of mothers with children age 12 and under. As the report notes: “It is clear that young children are experiencing food insecurity to an extent unprecedented in modern times.” The pernicious physical and psychological effects of child hunger may linger long after this crisis. Food insecurity in children can contribute to toxic stress, which can negatively impact brain development and increase the risk of depression, anxiety and substance abuse later in life. These effects are especially pronounced in the early years, though the effects of food insecurity are damaging at any age. Many of the traumas facing children across the country — shuttered schools and collapsing social routines — may be unavoidable in a pandemic. Hunger is avoidable.

Congress took a number of anti-hunger steps in March, including a temporary suspension of certain program requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would have been impractical in a pandemic. SNAP provides food assistance to about 40 million low-income Americans. Congress also authorized the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program to help families of children eligible for free or reduced school meals to access the value of those meals amid school closures. Most states have either already been approved to operate this program or have submitted proposals awaiting approval, though states still face administrative hurdles in making sure all those eligible can access the benefits.

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These were good early steps, but the specter of hunger is now worse than many imagined. To meet the growing need, Congress should boost maximum SNAP benefits by 15 percent, as it did during the Great Recession, and increase the minimum benefit. Congress should also extend P-EBT into the summer, and as long as school closures interrupt access to breakfast and lunch. Most important, snapbacks in benefits should be tied to economic indicators — such as regional unemployment — rather than the public health emergency, as the economic crisis will likely outlast the pandemic.

The grim prospect of a hunger crisis looms large around the world, particularly in places where it may not be possible to effectively socially distance while avoiding starvation. The United States has the means and policy infrastructure to avoid such devastating trade-offs. Do we have the political will?

Read more:

The Post’s View: The virus has triggered a surge in food insecurity. But there are ways to combat it.

Catherine Rampell: The next threat: Hunger in America

José Andrés: Our people are hungry. We need a leader who will feed them.

David M. Beasley: Covid-19 could detonate a ‘hunger pandemic.’ With millions at risk, the world must act.

Cornelia Griggs: This pandemic is already reshaping our children’s lives

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

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