In the last year and a half, our neighbors throughout Connecticut and the country find themselves without the financial means to afford enough food for themselves and their families. The widespread government response at the federal and state level helped prevent overall increases in food insecurity, but disparities increased for our most vulnerable neighbors across Connecticut. New solutions from our food bank and food pantries can close these gaps and promote long-term solutions out of this crisis.

Katie Martin and Brittany Cavaliere

The Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions at Connecticut Foodshare surveyed over 1,000 Connecticut residents to measure their access to food  one year after the pandemic started. Though food insecurity increased by 7% in Connecticut, the most significant increase was among households with children (41% in the year before COVID to 44% since COVID).

Data from the USDA shows that food insecurity was more prevalent among households headed by women prior to the pandemic. Disruptions in child care and schooling worsened this disparity as many working mothers left the workforce to care for their children. Additionally, one year after the pandemic, there was greater food insecurity amongst communities of color (40% were food insecure compared to 24% of white residents).

The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color exacerbated the pre-existing racial and ethnic disparities in food insecurity, inequities caused by a long history of racially discriminatory policies and practices in housing, banking, education, health, and more.

In the last 18 months, many individuals accessed food supports for the first time, including from food pantries and food programs throughout the state. For example, among guests visiting the Foodshare drive-through distribution at Rentschler field in 2020, 70% said that no one in their household had ever gone to a food pantry before COVID-19, and the majority of those receiving food were people of color.

As the disparities illuminate, more can and should be done to make healthy food accessible throughout our state and country. Most recently, the American Rescue Plan Act extended an increase in SNAP nutrition assistance benefits, expanded SNAP online purchasing for ease of food access, and expanded access to more fruits and vegetables for low-income mothers and children receiving WIC benefits. These policies are helping many Connecticut families access the food they need and provide more nutritious options. The federal and state increases in food assistance should receive continued funding to prevent any further increases in food insecurity and poverty.

Increased resources should also be targeted to making charitable food programs convenient and accessible to those most at risk for food insecurity. Results from the state-wide food access survey found that 69% of respondents say they don’t want to rely on a food pantry because they want to support themselves, and 42% say they would feel embarrassed to use a food pantry. At the same time, 93% of those who used a pantry would recommend food pantries to others in need. People of color face additional barriers, many sharing that pantry staff do not speak their language and pantries provide food they don’t know how to prepare.

Food pantry and meal programs can take steps to expand outreach, reduce potential stigma, create a welcoming environment for all visitors, and promote personal dignity and empowerment in their pantries.

For example, Covenant Soup Kitchen in Willimantic is renovating their Emergency Food Pantry (soon to be renamed Community Food Pantry Cooperative) to expand guest choice, create a more welcoming and accessible space, and increase days and hours of operation to reduce barriers to service. Their expanded pantry will provide a safer, more hospitable environment for their guests and will offer a greater variety of fresh foods, produce, meats and non-perishables. Covenant Soup Kitchen is just one of dozens of pantries across Connecticut and the country who are reinventing their approach.

The ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still with us, and the disparities are clear. To close these gaps, we should continue to listen to our community members most in need, keep investing in policies that reduce hunger, and take this opportunity to transform our food pantries with a person-centered and holistic approach to food insecurity.

Katie Martin is Executive Director and Brittney Cavaliere, Program Manager at the Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions at Connecticut Foodshare. The Institute serves as a resource for the charitable food system with innovative and evidence-based programs that promote health and long-term solutions to hunger.