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Keeping America Fed: COVID-19 and National Food Security

September 16, 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 level. In this episode, Geri Henchy, director of Nutrition Policy at the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), and Abt Senior Associates Maria Boyle talk about the successes and shortcoming of national programs, and the data that can help us close the gaps.

Be sure to check out episode 1, COVID-19 and Local Food Security.

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 Geri Henchy and Maria Boyle. Geri is the Director of Nutrition Policy at FRAC, the Food Research & Action Center. Her work focuses on nutrition policy, such as increasing the healthfulness of nutrition programs necessary to reach the goals of eradicating domestic hunger, and improving the nutrition and health of low-income individuals and families. 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.

Geri Henchy: Thanks Eric. We're happy to be here.

Maria Boyle: Thanks, Eric.

Eric: Geri, would you mind telling us a little bit about FRAC?

Geri: Well, FRAC is the leading national non-profit organization working to eradicate poverty-related hunger and under-nutrition in the United States. In this role, we do several things. We conduct research to document the extent of hunger, we look at the effects of hunger and try to look at their impact, and effective policy and legislative solutions, and we monitor the implementation of laws.

We're kind of what you think of as a watchdog organization. So we're always looking to see are we getting, maximizing what the law intended, are we getting maximum effect? And what changes would we need in terms of regulations, guidance, Q&A? What kinds of things work or don't work on the state and local level? How can we raise up those best practices? And then we work with a whole series of partners. So we have partners, national partners, and state and local partners, and then we have people who we consider our partners, of course, like all of you, who we look to for important information and research.

Eric: Thank you. So--appreciate that little shout out--that means, though, that you're really well equipped to tell us about the impact of COVID on food security around the nation, right? What are you seeing?

Geri: Right. So the impact of COVID on food security is really profound. So, we're seeing unprecedented levels of food insecurity, and we have a number of different sources for that information. We have a weekly survey that is going out through Census Pulse Survey, and that looks at food insufficiency. It has two questions. The first question is, are you worried you're going to run out of food? And then the second question is something like, have you run out of food and not had money to buy more?

So those two together constitute what ERS [Economic Research Service] calls food insufficiency. Some people have been working on extrapolations of that. And that's what you actually usually see when you see food insecurity reported in the press. And that is an extrapolation of that food insufficiency number, to make it a number which is closer to a kind of food insecurity. So there you see 23 percent across the board, 29.9 percent for families with children.

And then what we really see highlighted, is which we had always seen in all of the food insecurity data, but this really just shows the stark realities, that very, very much higher rates of food insecurity for African American families and individuals for Hispanic and Latinx families and individuals. So, for example, African American individuals with children have unprecedentedly high food insecurity rates during COVID. And it ranges each week, but 27, 28, is what you might've thought, but what it actually is, is 37, 38, 39 percent.

Eric: Wow.

Geri: So that's a huge, huge high. And the same thing with Hispanic, Latinx families. It's been as high as 42 percent because it ranges. It goes up and down during COVID. So, just unprecedentedly high levels and heartbreakingly high levels of food insecurity.

You have a lot of different information, really, really helpful information, which is accompanied by a lot of information about people’s employment status, whether they have insurance, their mental health status, all those things, which are also things that we know are both related to causing food insecurity, contributing to food insecurity, like employment status, loss of wages or loss of jobs during COVID-19, but then also the impact of food insecurity. So the impact of the mental health impact, so you're seeing much higher rates of mental health problems during COVID-19, and one of the factors in that is food insecurity. I mean, if you don't have enough food, that's depressing.

So, additionally, one of the things we really want to think about is what isn't being measured? One thing that is not being measured is food insecurity rates in the Native American populations. That would include across-the-board in the Native American population, but it would also include people who are living on tribal lands. So we already know that there's a very significant differential normally in food insecurity, much higher rates of food insecurity in the Native American population, but we don't have any specific measures of that now. So we can assume, and I think we would be correct in assuming, that we also are seeing unprecedentedly high levels of food insecurity among Indigenous peoples. But we don't have any research on it.

Maria: Our Summer EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer] Expansion project, two of the grantees are with tribal nations, so while we won't be measuring ... A lot of our Summer EBT work, our initial study, this is our third round of evaluation work that we're doing on the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer projects, these demonstration projects. We do have two grantees that are tribal nations, and we will be looking at Summer EBT implementation in those tribal nation areas. We won't be measuring food insecurity per se, like we maybe have done in the past, but we will have a lot of interesting data that will be specific to feeding children in tribal nations.

Geri: I think that's going to be very helpful.

Maria: I think it will be because it's ... I think some of the interesting pieces of a lot of our Summer EBT demonstration, evaluation work has really been to show how this project can work in different areas. This focus will be on rural and very rural areas, and different types of populations than we've looked at in the past, so I think it will be really useful information.

Eric: It's great that we're going to be able to help understand what's going to serve tribal nations and rural populations. What are some other projects and programs that are helping other populations in need of support?

Geri: So, some of what we're seeing as very important during COVID-19, of course, is the SNAP program, right?

Maria: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Geri: SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] is very, very, very important. We're seeing huge increases in SNAP applications, an avalanche of SNAP applications because people really need the help and they've lost their jobs. And so SNAP is there for people. We did get some waivers to make it easier. We're continually fighting on difficult proposals from this administration to make it harder to get on SNAP, so we've continued that. But we are also looking for some changes in the next economic stimulus bill. But we see that SNAP, as an entitlement program and with the flexibilities that it has, is very important.

But in addition to that, we think that SNAP is chronically low-balling how much it's going to take people to buy a healthy diet. And really, the Thrifty Food Plan is actually not enough, in reality, for people to buy a healthy diet most of the time. So we think that's important, in trying to understand who got on SNAP during COVID-19. As it's going forward, what are the facilitators and barriers? Why is it that some people in some places can get what they need and get on SNAP, but other people are still waiting in line to get on SNAP? So what's happening there? What's happening on the state level and the local level? Those are implementation issues as well as policy issues.

So, then, for children, a really important program, of course, has been the school meals programs, school-aged care programs. And, really, the school people have been heroes, real heroes, because they've started using the waivers for the Summer Food Program, waivers for Seamless Summer started using the Summer Food Program. They could serve all kids. Didn't just have to be enrolled kids, didn't have to just be school-aged. All the kids in the family. The parent or the guardian could come, you don't have to bring the kids, you pick up the meals, and actually, by the end of it, you could pick up a whole week's worth of meals for your family so you didn't have to keep coming.

So people perfected the system, which now is starting again with the new school year, and so they really just were feeding the community and just cranking out those meals. Mostly, you saw a lot of people coming to do what's called grab and go for the meals, coming to pick them up, but there were also a lot of places where people use the school buses and the bus routes to deliver the food to people-

Maria: That's right.

Geri: ... just to make sure that people had their meals. So I think to understand how that could keep working is important, and some work was done on that.

One thing was clear, you needed to keep having these summer waivers. And just this week, so your podcast is very timely, just, just, just, just happened, USDA said they were going to extend those summer waivers and some of the other waivers around the school-aged care until the end of the year. And so, just to give you an example of the difference between having the summer waiver and not, with the summer waiver, you can do everything that I just said the schools have been doing, right?

Maria: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Geri: You can give meals to all the kids, you don't have to charge them. Okay, so if you don't have that waiver, then the schools have to only serve the school-aged kids enrolled. They've got to figure out who everyone is every time they give out the meals. They have to charge if the child's not free or reduced. Well, they have to charge if the child's not free, they have to charge reduced price. Kids who were in the reduced price category, and free, that's problematic because you can be in the reduced price category and have to pay a lot of money. It adds up to get a week's worth of meals. Money that people just don't have.

Now, the summer waiver's back, you've got kids in virtual school or real school, but you really still need those options because so say kids are in virtual school, same thing as it was before, right?

Maria: Right.

Geri: They need it. But even if, say, kids are there every other day, however they're doing it, partial things, then they need some help. So that's an example of with the school-aged.

Now, on the community-based side, we also saw the YMCAs take up the summer waiver, so they were also feeding kids. So the Ys went to town. That's a community-based grab and go model. Also really important, they also really needed this summer waiver. So a lot of childcare shut down, but so there we see a real loss of meals. So if we think about what does it mean to lose those meals, how many meals were lost?

Just to give you an example, we were talking to people from New Jersey and we were calculating all this stuff. So 1.7 million meals lost out of CACFP [Child and Adult Care Food Program], just in April, just in New Jersey. Huge numbers of these healthy meals, which everyone had worked so hard to get the new standards for, and everyone was so proud of their meals, well, that's it. The kids aren't getting them. So I guess part of the question there is what is the impact of that? Well, the impact is increased food insecurity because the families then have to somehow come up with the money to go to the store, to buy the food, to make those meals. And the likelihood of them being that healthy in these economic circumstances are really all that much, much lower. So you get [nutrition] issues and food security issues.

Maria: Geri, do you think Pandemic EBT helps with that or addresses at least some of that? Or had. I don't know, I think we don't really know at this point, right?

Eric: Maria, if we don't know, what could we ... How do we figure this out? And Geri, I guess that's, is that a data hole we need to plug?

Geri: So I think the interesting thing about Pandemic EBT is that, if the children get it, there's no question that it will be impactful because we're talking about the value of the meals that they missed. So you could have $125 per child per month. So that's going to have an impact. What exactly the impact is, is very similar to the study you're talking about for summer food, which for the summer food EBT, it was $30 and $60.

Maria: That's right.

Geri: If you look at the results of your study for $30 and $60, the impact on diet quality, actually the impact on food insecurity was substantial.

Maria: That's right.

Geri: You have $125 per child, then it would be, there's no doubt that that's going to have a big impact. It'd be important to know what it is because it relates to future disasters, but it also relates to the point I made earlier, which is that SNAP benefits are inadequate. I think that this is a way of getting back to that point about the SNAP benefits.

So that is one set of thing. The other thing is, the states had to come up with these complex plans to do something they had never done before-

Maria: Right.

Geri: ... in a very quick amount of time. This whole thing was very quick, but people took, they had to ... I mean, you imagine, that this wasn't even one agency trying to figure out what it was going to do. It was several agencies talking about data matching.

Maria: Right.

Geri: And things that normally, if you were trying to make happen, you would say this is going to take three years, right? Because between all the MoUs [Memorandums of understanding] and all the interoperability issues, and all of the politics, this is going to take three years. But they got it done. They all got it done, but they got it done in different ways.

Maria: Right.

Geri: Some of them are much more effective than other ways. And so actually, the people who did it later learned from the people who did it to start with.

Maria: That's right. Right.

Geri: Yeah. So I mean, Maria, I think it's very interesting to think about that.

Maria: Absolutely. I think there's a lot that we can learn from ... For thinking about Pandemic EBT, there's a lot we can learn from other EBT implementation that's happened in different ways across states, both pulling from existing programs, that we've evaluated, as well as learning from, like you were saying, Geri, some of these earlier states that implemented Pandemic EBT, and then lessons were learned from those early states by the later states.

I think that gets into this whole need for best practices, templates available, technical assistance, that kind of piece, so that states, localities, communities are able to implement these projects and programs very quickly if they have models that they can work from.

Eric: I know we've done that kind of work for the CARES Act, in terms of housing. Presumably that's something we can apply here as well. What are some other ways we can look to plug holes, lessen the impact moving forward, capturing best practices? What else can we be looking to do?

Maria: I know there's a lot of this food security data coming out, but I think it would be really interesting to almost look at, if we're talking about federal programs, and this podcast too, but to look at how have the gaps have been able to be filled, and where are the gaps still existing? Okay, we have ... Geri, you were saying all those CACFP meals missed, just in New Jersey in one month, so are there enough, is there enough coming from these other sources that are filling those gaps for families? And if not, what's happening, and then what needs to step in to help fill those gaps?

I feel like there could be a lot of data gathering and research that could help with that. Abt's developed a, our data capture and service center, we've developed a COVID-19 assessment and tracking tool that's really been meant for communities to use to really try and collect some real time data on a variety of problem areas related to COVID-19, this includes food security, and then can really help inform decision-making during the pandemic.

So we do have that available and communities can pull out different questions, different parts of the survey that they want to use. It can help them assess even where their families, where their communities are experiencing these continued food security gaps, and maybe help them think about how to address that.

Geri: How do people access that, Maria? How would people go about using that if they wanted to?

Maria: Yeah. That is available from Abt, and it's a Tableau dashboard. That's something that we're able to offer our clients.

Geri: One thing that we might want to talk about is food insecurity among senior people, right, in the US.

Maria: Right.

Geri: So we think about food insecurity among people who are 65 years or older, then what we see is that the food insecurity rates have doubled. Now, they're a lot lower actually than the overall population, but they've doubled and they're unacceptably high. So what are some of the things that the federal government did in the Families First, and the CARES Act? The thing they did is they really increased the amount of money that they were going to put into the, your feeding programs.

Maria: So this switch in the focus of the programs, how do we know that that's addressing those large numbers of food insecurity in the population? How can we make that link with our research, right? We have a group at Abt that's trying to get together, we have a lot of older adult, health evaluation research experience, TA, for different programs. But I think ,from my perspective, I've been thinking about this quite a lot, that that's an area that does need quite a bit of research, especially given the older adult population that's really been hit hard by COVID-19, and has a harder time getting out and shopping and accessing food.

I wonder, that as we're doing evaluations of each of these kinds of programs or each of these kinds of projects that are attempting to address or alleviate food insecurity in that way, do we have some really good measures of food insecurity? Are we looking at some impact evaluations to really be able to make those connections, associations, or even say something about the impact of these changes in the programs?

Geri: I think that's exactly right because I think your point about what are the lessons we've learned is absolutely crucial. Because going forward, what does this mean?

Maria: Right.

Geri: What does it mean about policy and practice in these federal food programs if COVID continues or if something like COVID comes back?

Maria: That's right.

Geri: But also, what does it mean just if we return to just our regular lives, right?

Maria: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Geri:  We go back to the way we lived before. And I'll give you one example, the WIC Program [Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children], which we've talked about. We have all these federal food programs, the WIC Program is very important. There is a waiver, because of COVID-19, that said that you could enroll people, certify people, give them services over the phone. It waived the requirement for them to come in in person. Very, very important. So what have we learned from that? What do we know?

Maria: Right.

Geri: Just from people telling us that this makes the life way easier for people, not just in COVID-19, but generally. So what do we ... What does that say to us about using client-facing technology in the WIC Program moving forward? How can we maximize that?

Maria: That's right. And what can we pull from what we've learned to really implement more broadly, and use more broadly, if and when we're back to normal circumstances at some point?

Eric: Well, that sounds like a good stopping point. Geri, thank you for joining us.

Geri: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

Eric: Maria, what do we have coming up next month?

Maria: So, next month is the third podcast in our series. We'll be talking about consumer perspectives, looking at consumer purchasing patterns, as well as consumer consumption patterns, and talking about whether there have been any changes in those as a result of COVID-19.

Eric: Great. Until then, thanks for joining us.

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