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Keeping America Fed: COVID-19 and Local Food Security

July 22, 2020

Food security is a daily challenge for millions of Americans, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a myriad of issues for those same people and the stakeholders who work with them. Keeping America Fed is a podcast miniseries through which we’ll look at those issues, and how they’re being addressed locally and at the state and federal levels. In this episode, Deputy Director of Neighbors in Need Lisa Smith and Abt Senior Associate Maria Boyle talk about identifying and implementing solutions locally.

Read the Transcript:

Eric Tischler: Food security is a daily challenge for millions of Americans, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a myriad of issues for those same people and the stakeholders who work with them. Keeping America Fed is a podcast miniseries through which we'll look at those issues and how they're being addressed locally and at the state and federal levels.

Today, we're talking with Lisa Smith and Maria Boyle. Lisa is a deputy director of Neighbors In Need, a nonprofit that operates food and diaper pantries that serve more than 1,000 families in greater Lawrence, Massachusetts. She has a background in community organizing, volunteer management, and resource development. Maria is a senior associate here at Abt. She has over 20 years of experience working on programs, policies, research studies, and evaluations related to nutrition, food security, and food assistance programs. Thank you both for joining me.

Maria Boyle: Thanks Eric.

Lisa Smith: Thank you. What a great opportunity.

Eric: Lisa, let's start with you. Tell us a little bit about what Neighbors In Need does and what's been working for you as you struggle with COVID.

Lisa Smith: Excellent. Thanks, Eric. We are a small nonprofit serving Lawrence, Massachusetts and the surrounding area. Lawrence is one of the hardest-hit areas of Massachusetts with COVID infection rates, some of the highest in the State of Massachusetts.

What we do here is we operate 13 local food pantries which mostly are walking distance from many of our clients. We try to have a pantry within a half-mile walk for anyone in a low-income census tract within the city of Lawrence because most of our folks here in Lawrence don't have a lot of access to transportation. Only about 50% of Lawrence residents have access to a vehicle. We operate small food pantries, and we also operate a diaper pantry. Our food pantries serve about 1,000 families each week. We focus on providing fresh fruits and vegetables as well as other staples in our food pantries.

Part of what's been working for us in the last few months is that we were able to very quickly change our model from a model where people came in and chose the food that they wanted—clients are now coming and picking up supplies in our food pantry in a grab-and-go bag. We went from a choice pantry model to a grab-and-go food pantry model where we have a large number of volunteers coming in and packing food on a regular basis, and then those supplies are going out to our clients. So our ability to quickly switch models in March has really helped us serve a greater number of people during the pandemic.

We've also gotten great support here in Massachusetts at the local and state level. The State of Massachusetts has put a lot of supplies into providing food both through the food banks as well as through resources for food pantries to increase capacity and make some improvements, as well as provided for additional staff support in other ways. We think those are some things that have worked well for us.

Eric: That's great. I'm going to ask Maria how that aligns with what she's seen in other states, but then let me also ask you, Lisa, what are some of the challenges that you've had to grapple with and are still grappling with maybe?

Lisa: Yeah. A big thing that COVID did was highlight and create additional barriers for the folks in our neighborhoods who need food the most. So, again, things like transportation, people were afraid to take public transit and may just now be coming out to trust the public buses or taxis or whatever forms of transportation they were using to get to grocery stores.

Food is not as available in urban settings oftentimes, especially in Lawrence, we have sort of a food desert. The access to food got much worse during the COVID pandemic, and there weren't as many disaster plans in place. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, I know some of our clients were not able to access the resources they needed as quickly as they wanted to.

Another challenge for us has been consistent access to food supply at a larger level. The food supply coming from the food banks and other places has been up and down. Getting donations was a challenge just to have the volunteers sort and process donations, as well as just the food availability. Just as many of us went to the grocery store and there wasn't meat on the shelves or other supplies like rice and beans or diapers, our clients also found those needs and didn't have as many places to turn to have those needs met. So I think those would have been some of the challenges we've been facing.

Maria: Right, and the cost of the food as well, right? We've been hearing that sort of across all income levels, that the cost of food has become an issue as well as the availability, right, just from the grocery stores?

Lisa: Yeah, that's exactly right. Now you're seeing food costs rise, they're even higher. It's an additional barrier for our clients, especially because we know our clients are also being hit by layoffs and other economic issues that are going to last for a long time. It's like a whammy.

Maria: Do you feel like you've been able to serve everyone that's needed, or do you feel like there's still a lot of gaps around who you've been able to serve, the families or seniors or... ?

Lisa: Yes. It's very hard to tell. Definitely, our numbers have increased, steadily increased since the beginning of the pandemic. With the warm weather and with infection rates dropping somewhat, I think clients are now starting to feel more comfortable coming out. But elderly clients and clients that are of high risk, clients with young children who may not easily get to the food pantries, I think that there's still a big demand for food in those areas, and it's really hard to get food out to people who can't readily get to the pantries.

We've increased our capacity for those... We've never done deliveries, or maybe if we did, there were a handful of deliveries that volunteers would take some food bags from one of the pantries they were serving at and drop off. I'm now doing somewhere between 60 and 75 deliveries a week. These are mostly to clients that are elderly or high-risk. I think that's something we're going to have to maintain for a long time. I'm not sure how... That's dependent on a team of volunteers who can come and pick up the bags and take them to clients as the rest of us get back to work and go back to school and do all those things we haven't done for the last four months. I worry a little bit about our ability to continue to provide those services.

I also am interested to see a lot of our families are part of the public school system, and so those families are also getting supplies through school lunches. As school has ended and summer programs have started, I know that food's still available, but I'm curious to see how families are making that transition, if they're still taking part in those programs.

Also, we know some benefits, EBT, electronic benefits associated with the SNAP program were made available to families that were participating in the school lunch program. I don't know how many of those families took advantage of that. It would be good to gather that data and other data to see. Any kind of data that we can get to see how families are making use of federal and state and local benefits around food would be really incredibly helpful for us, because it's a black box. We're seeing increased demand and we're trying to do some different things, like the deliveries, but it would be great to be able to kind of pull back the curtains a little bit and look at it more closely to see where the holes are.

Maria: How would that help you? Would that help you be able to... If that kind of data was available, like food security rates in Lawrence, who was being served by the different programs, would that help you then to be able to target your services better? Is that what you're thinking?

Lisa: Yeah, exactly. But I think the challenge in Lawrence is that we've got a nice blanket of social services and we're all... Actually, one of the things that's been working well also is that we've managed to work well together as a group on the whole. So we have been meeting as nonprofits locally, as well as on a state level, and that's been a really excellent tool for communication, but the best thing that we could all know is where the holes are, it was the question before COVID. And now again, COVID just highlighted all the needs that we've seen in our community, [people] are even having less chance to connect with each other and to connect with the social services where they might be able to find the resources they need. So it was critical information previously and it's even more critical now.

Maria: Right. If you have limited resources and a limited amount of food, probably research can kind of... That sort of information can help you prioritize, like who needs the food, not only like where the gaps are, but I help you to prioritize where you put your resources as well. So again with sort of a limited supply of available food, given the demand that's out there right now.

Eric: So Maria, is that something that we could help provide, gathering that data and disseminating that data?

Maria: Yeah. I think we're sort of trying to think about different ways that, given our expertise in food security research and research on food assistance programs, what are some of the types of information that we could gather that would sort of help programs like Lisa's? And also just help inform the broader community in terms of food security data, where even if it's not kind of community focused, like, for example, with Lisa to Lawrence, but sort of more broadly across communities, “These are the populations that are falling through the gaps. These are the families that are not being served by school meals.” A lot of school meal programs have done, as Lisa knows, they've now sort of done this new process where you can go and just pick up your meal at the school district and the families can do that. And I think there's a lot of questions around, are they serving the same amount of families? Are they serving less? Are they serving more?

And as Lisa mentioned, sort of, how do some of those programs help fill in gaps that emergency food assistance can't, and then what's happening in the summer, even? Typically there are a number of summer programs that kind of take over, but schools are still serving those foods in the summer. And then there are the summer programs, and I think there's not a clear understanding of what's happened and all the changes because it's been so rapid. So I think that kind of information and research would be really useful. I think, in particular, if there was some sort of food security monitoring system that was available, like on a local basis or on a state basis.

Lisa: Yeah. I know here in Lawrence, over the last almost two years now or longer, we've been trying to do a community food assessment that kind of gets at that question of, where are our gaps? And I do think one of the challenges with COVID is that so many more people are not interacting with the services they might, or being able to seek services. And that I wonder if when kids get back to school in the fall, we're going to have a whole new range of issues we have to respond to that we didn't even know, or families that were off the radar that are now suddenly on the radar or any number of issues.

I think research and best practices, looking at what's going on in other communities, especially now, if we know if COVID is going on for another 18 months or two years or whatever it is. And after COVID, there'll be another kind of disaster. There are a number of these things—hopefully not—but having a national organization or organizations that are paying attention to things that are bubbling up across the United States and being able to funnel that back to organizations doing the work is critical.I know a couple of times, especially early on, I found myself Googling and looking at what was going on in Washington State because I thought, "Okay, they were only six weeks ahead of us” but at the time there was nobody else. So the more that we can figure that out, what those best practices are and how we can share that information is incredibly helpful. I think to people like Neighbors In Need and other smaller organizations.

Eric: This is all data that we could be collecting and analyzing, right? We could be helping to disseminate to identify those best practices, right?

Maria: Yes, exactly. We could definitely be doing something like that, like collecting best practices. I think there's also a lot of opportunity to look at how to... Best practices around quickly pivoting. Lisa, that's something I've been thinking about, too, as communities open up and then they shut down and they open up, sort of what our models as to what have communities put in place to kind of quickly respond in those situations. The school's open, everybody's serving lunch, or people are starting to go back and have more in-person services, but then things shut down again as the COVID numbers go up. So how can food assistance programs make those pivots quickly? And I think that kind of information, those kinds of best practices could also be really interesting.

Eric: I was going to ask Lisa, if you had any tips, you said that you felt like you pivoted successfully to a new model, any tips that you would share to about how you made that transition

Lisa: In the food pantry we definitely have places like the food banks that are helping get the word out or helping us understand. But it was definitely piecemeal. First we had to understand we were essential, right? So when everything was shutdown, does that mean we're shutdown, right? So things got defined really quickly. But I think work from groups like [Abt] or others could be really helpful in making sure those definitions, like the one that are sort of that states understand what they need to have to flow back and forth.

Early on, we were literally waiting for federal legislation to pass, to allow WIC, to work remotely. And until the Senate passed that legislation, there was no permission granted. So states … where it was really a hodgepodge mixture of information that was trickling down to the states about how to handle this. But if there was an organization or organizations that were advocating and putting forward those policy recommendations on a state level that were then working with the local organizations to make sure that they had those plans in place, if that ever had to happen again ...

Maria: I keep coming back to the schools piece, because I feel like it's the part that has been most visible in all of this and how the schools shut down one day and then they realized, "Oh, there are all these children that they feed every single day." And where schools, they can provide really the nutrition for two thirds of a day for children as children get both breakfast and lunch at school. So they are a pretty important source of nutrition, a source of food. And so schools, again, I think that's something that would be interesting in terms of best practices and models and what made schools be able to pivot—those that did—because they did it very quickly in some areas, in some school districts where they immediately started giving out free meals to everybody. But I think, again, pulling out what worked, number served, that kind of information would be really useful. Just so that we all have an understanding of all the pieces that went into making those kinds of quick changes to delivery models.

Eric: Right. Well, that may be a good place to stop because next month we're going to talk about the State level, and maybe we'll get some more data there, but it sounds like we all agree: We need to know more.

Maria: Yep. And I think next month, we're hoping to talk a little bit more detail about what some of the specific federal food programs have done and what's happening and maybe what's not happening with those on the state and local levels. So that will be great.

Eric: All right. Well, Lisa, thank you so much for joining us.

Maria: Thanks, Lisa.

Lisa: Yeah. Great. Thank you.

Eric: And thank you out there for listening to this Abt podcast.

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