Children pick up lunch at the Olympic Hills Elementary School, after schools were closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, in Seattle, Washington, March 17, 2020, photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

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(The RAND Blog)

Food Access: Challenges and Solutions Brought on by COVID-19

Children pick up lunch at the Olympic Hills Elementary School, Seattle, Washington, March 17, 2020

Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

For the 14.3 million American households already experiencing food insecurity, COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions have created new layers of hardship. Many families are avoiding or having trouble getting to grocery stores, which have limited their hours and services. Although food inventories remain robust, there have also been empty grocery shelves because of heightened demand for staple goods and supply chain challenges. Restaurants that deliver food are closed or cutting back. And widespread layoffs and furloughs mean families have less money to buy groceries.

These difficulties hit all communities, but some groups are especially at risk:

Kids. Millions of children affected by school closures no longer have access to federally subsidized school lunches (29.7 million), breakfasts (14.7 million), or after-school snacks (1.2 million). These lost meals are particularly troubling for the 11 million (PDF) children in 2018 that lived in food insecure households.

Undergraduates. A third of college students report (PDF) that they are routinely food insecure. Now they can no longer rely on subsidized meal plans, campus housing, or campus food service businesses because of school closures.

Families residing in food deserts. Individuals living in neighborhoods with already limited access to grocery stores and restaurants are likely experiencing additional difficulties due to business closures and transit restrictions.

Elderly people. Households with elderly individuals, 2.9 million of which are food insecure, are no longer able rely on federally subsidized meals served in group settings or adult care facilities. This is especially concerning given that elderly individuals are at risk for severe COVID-19–associated illness.

Low-income families. Many consumers will have less money to spend on food due to lost paychecks stemming from illness, increased child/caregiver responsibilities, and social distancing measures. Such challenges may be particularly acute for those without paid leave, health insurance, or unemployment insurance or those employed in precarious work positions. Empty shelves may be especially harmful to families who rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which limits benefits to specific staple foods.

For the 14.3 million American households already experiencing food insecurity, COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions have created new layers of hardship.

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Food supply chain workers. Farmers, food processors, and retail employees themselves may be affected by illness and self-quarantine, hazardous work conditions, a lack of paid sick leave, and reductions in farm income due to economic uncertainty and the loss of direct-to-consumer markets (e.g., farmers' markets, farm-to-school programs). Longer-term challenges may arise in domestic and international markets as business closures, food inspection suspensions, and travel and visa restrictions between countries persist (e.g., limits on new H-2A guest workers in the United States) and as supply chains shift to meet demands for essential products.

What Is Being Done?

Three broad categories of solutions are being rolled out by government agencies, private businesses, and nonprofits.

Boost Households' Food Buying Power

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC are well suited to lend emergency assistance. The recently enacted Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) expands SNAP or WIC eligibility by suspending certain requirements and giving states greater flexibility in enrollment rules, food item allowances, and operational requirements. Federal and state policymakers also are considering whether to increase SNAP benefits (e.g., by utilizing Disaster SNAP). Some municipalities are providing additional cash benefits; for example, Seattle is offering 6,000 low-income families up to $800 in supermarket vouchers. Separately, the federal cash assistance, expanded unemployment benefits, and expanded paid family leave in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act will give households more money for food.

Bolster Emergency Food Resources

Local food banks and pantries are struggling to meet the extraordinary demand created by COVID-19. Food donation organizations, like Feeding America, have launched campaigns to raise funds to address emergency needs. In terms of federal law, the FFCRA authorizes funds for pre-packaged meals for low-income seniors and commodity food distribution through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to boost the capabilities of food banks and pantries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has authorized school districts to run their summer feeding programs during the current school closures. Accordingly, some districts are making grab-and-go meals available, serving as food banks for low-income families, and using bus routes to deliver meals. However, there is growing concern such distribution may be hindered by risk of community transmission and volunteer shortages.

Protect the Supply Chain

Several businesses and jurisdictions are considering whether to designate grocery store and food supply chain workers as essential employees, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (PDF), and offer them corresponding benefits and protections. They're considering, for example, expanded paid family leave, childcare subsidies, hazard compensation, health insurance coverage, access to personal protective equipment, and disease mitigation efforts (e.g., erecting physical barriers or implementing intensive cleaning procedures). Businesses are also expanding restocking and delivery services (e.g., Amazon and Walmart are hiring thousands of new workers) and rapidly modifying their supply chains.

What Could Policymakers and Community Leaders Consider Moving Forward?

First, this crisis calls for a coordinated response that addresses both near- and long-term challenges. Some jurisdictions, like New York City, have appointed a “food czar.” Arizona and California meanwhile have mobilized their National Guard to support food supply and distribution operations. Food service and retail businesses are adopting COVID-19 response plans to minimize disease transmission while also ensuring food access.

Second, to protect food supply workers and minimize transmission that might hinder food access, businesses and local governments could consider designating farm workers, food processors, food retail workers, and others as emergency personnel and providing them with personal protective equipment, priority access to disease testing, safe worksites, hazard pay, and adequate access to health care, childcare, and sick leave.

Third, local and state public service agencies could immediately request needed USDA waivers to expand access to SNAP and WIC. For example, Arizona requested permission to use SNAP benefits for hot and prepared meals, and California requested permission to use SNAP benefits for online grocery delivery orders. State agencies could also utilize public outreach so families are aware of available benefits.

Just a few weeks into the pandemic, tremendous efforts are already underway to make sure the food insecure aren't forgotten in the midst of so much other disruption. But the weeks to come will surely demand more creative solutions from the public and private sectors, particularly for the most vulnerable in our communities.


Sameer M. Siddiqi is an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. Jonathan Cantor is an associate policy researcher, Tamara Dubowitz is a senior policy researcher, Andrea Richardson is a policy researcher, Patricia Ann Stapleton is a political scientist, and Yael Katz is a quantitative analyst at RAND.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.