Pandemic highlights need for a renewed statewide focus on food sufficiency
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity had a grip on the state of Connecticut. In 2018, the DataHaven Community Wellbeing Survey found that 13 percent of Connecticut adults had not had enough money to buy food at some point within the last year. Adults living in households with children were even more likely to report not having enough money for food.
The fact that so many hundreds of thousands of residents experience this hardship translates into an outsized opportunity to improve the collective well-being of our state: a recent study using Connecticut data documents this, finding that food insecurity predicts life satisfaction to the same degree as a four-fold increase in household earnings. This is because hunger gnaws at all aspects of life. The detrimental effects of food insecurity on an individual’s health are not confined to the daily, debilitating anxiety about how you’ll feed yourself or your family; food insecurity is known to lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity, and also increases the risk of mental health issues.
Wanda Perez of New Haven knows this first-hand. She is one of the Connecticut residents who tells her story in the four-part video series “COVID-19 Reckonings”, produced by Purple States and DataHaven. Wanda was homeless for more than thirty years, and well remembers what it was like to go to bed hungry. Now she has high blood pressure, and her heart is dilated.
‘Greater harm during shutdown’ is the third episode of “COVID-19 Reckonings”. The four-part series is produced by Purple States and DataHaven with Connecticut residents at higher risk because of longstanding inequities. Shelter-at-home sheltered fewer Blacks and Latinos, and is exacerbating disparities that make the virus deadlier. For full series and more info, go to ctdatahaven.org/video.
This week’s episode about the unequal impact of the pandemic is entitled “Greater harm during lockdown.” The virus and its ripple effects have left more Connecticut residents like Wanda in precarious situations.
Starting on April 23 and continuing weekly through the present, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (HPS) has asked adults throughout the country about life during the pandemic. Data collected over the first eight weeks of the survey reveal that since the onset of COVID-19, 10 percent of adults both nationwide and in Connecticut have sometimes or often not had enough to eat in the previous seven days. Looking toward the coming month, 6 percent of Connecticut adults have said they are “not at all confident” that their household will be able to afford the types of food they need, and an additional 20 percent are only “somewhat confident.”
From the beginning of February to March 10, the average number of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications (SNAP) in Connecticut was 156 per day. Yet from March 10 to July 12, the Department of Social Services has seen an average of 383 applications daily, reaching its highest in April.
This dramatic increase in food need is tied closely to rising unemployment in the state. The Connecticut Department of Labor estimated that the unemployment rate was about 19 percent for mid-May, skyrocketing from 4 percent in January after steadily declining for nearly a decade. Pulse Survey data shows that 47 percent of Connecticut residents experienced a loss of work-related income in their household since the pandemic began.
Even before COVID-19, however, unemployment and food insecurity did not affect all communities equally. As has been highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, Black communities in the United States —Connecticut included—have endured unequal treatment for hundreds of years including police brutality, segregated housing and education, and neighborhood disinvestment; this racial disparity is traceable in patterns of food insecurity as well. A new DataHaven report on health equity in Connecticut (ctdatahaven.org/healthequity) found elevated rates of food insecurity for Black and Latino residents, at 23 percent and 28 percent, respectively, even before the pandemic. By disaggregating the Pulse Data by race and ethnicity, we see that this pattern has only continued since the onset of COVID-19. Despite intensified government efforts, Black residents currently experience food insecurity at 2.5 times the rate of white residents, and Latino residents at three times the rate.
The federal and state governments have taken steps to mitigate rising hunger, including waiving work requirements and time limits for SNAP, and increasing the value of SNAP benefits per household, with the most recent increase announced on July 10th. They are also partnering with food retailers to allow SNAP benefits to be used online. Many school districts in Connecticut are providing free to-go breakfast and lunch meals to children, both to children who received free meals before the pandemic and to those with a new need. According to Pulse Survey data, meals from schools or other programs aimed at children are the most commonly used source of free meals and groceries since the onset of COVID-19, followed by food pantries.
Still, many of these programs have barriers to access: without school buses running every day and with public transportation only just bouncing back from reduced schedules and potentially posing infection risk, students need to find other ways to get to school and obtain these free meals. The family of one of the residents featured in COVID-19 Reckonings—15-year-old Aziya— includes six younger children, and they have no car. In 2018, about 20 percent of Black and Latino households and 6 percent of white households had no vehicle available, according to the new DataHaven report.
While SNAP has tried to increase safe access to groceries for families without cars by allowing benefits to cover online purchases, the implementation has not been flawless. The federal pilot program was just recently enacted in the state on June 3, only includes three retailers (Amazon, Walmart, and ShopRite), and does not cover shipping and delivery costs. For those living on small or fixed incomes, like Wanda, finding the money to cover delivery charges is difficult.
While local food pantries have been distributing thousands of pounds of food to residents via drive-through lines, a drive-through line requires a vehicle, and those who cannot afford a vehicle are likely to be most in need of these resources. However, community initiatives have met these accessibility challenges head on. For example, Loaves and Fishes has expanded deliveries to the elderly to include those with pre-existing health conditions like Wanda. And advocacy groups like the one she volunteers at — Witness to Hunger — have been helping to develop walk-up ‘grab and go’ options.
Today, in Episode Three of “COVID-19 Reckonings,” the stories of Wanda and Aziya reveal that making food reliably available during a pandemic is not just a matter of supplying financial relief or stocking food pantries, but requires making it possible for residents to secure healthy food without increasing their exposure to the virus.
Difficulty in finding safe ways to get enough to eat is a part of the puzzle that explains the disturbingly high rates of COVID-19 infection among Black and Latino communities. Individuals like Wanda who have endured long-standing food insecurity are significantly more likely to end up with obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, and therefore face a much higher risk for serious complications from exposure to the coronavirus.
Given these realities, the state must further increase its efforts to feed residents, but with a keen eye for those who were already vulnerable to food insecurity before the pandemic began. The government must support strategies developed by communities themselves, which often have a better understanding of local needs.
If we can overcome the barriers faced by minority communities to accessing healthy food in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, Connecticut will be better equipped to address longstanding inequities in food security. Until then, the state will instead be feeding the cycle of hunger, increasing residents’ susceptibility to COVID-19 and negatively impacting their health for years to come.
Chloe Shawah is at DataHaven, a New Haven-based non-profit organization with a 25-year history of public service to Connecticut communities. Its mission is to empower people to create thriving communities by collecting and ensuring access to data on well-being, equity, and quality of life.
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