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The State of Hunger: Before & Since the Pandemic

October 6, 2020

The Boston Foundation, together with Project Bread and Children’s HealthWatch, hosted a forum on food insecurity on October 6, analyzing new research on our region pre- and post-coronavirus, and discussing the issue with those who see it play out in daily life.

More than 300 people listened online as Boston Foundation CEO Paul Grogan opened The State of Hunger in Massachusetts by introducing keynote speaker, U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley, who represents the Massachusetts 7th District, encompassing parts of Chelsea, Roxbury and Mattapan among other areas particularly hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pressley said, “It is unthinkable, the level of hunger that persists in such an affluent society,” and spoke of the calls she’s had from constituents who work 80 hours a week but at minimum wage can’t afford rent, child care, utilities and food. There is simply not enough money. Access to good food is another challenge. Pressley said she was corrected by a resident when she spoke of food deserts: “We don’t have food deserts; we have food injustice. In fact, we have food apartheid.” The pandemic has only made the situation starker, with the “tsunami of hurt” she blamed on a poor federal response. But, she urged, “[We] do not have the luxury to be cynical or apathetic. We need to make some noise. We can start by sharing research and letting people see the problem, understand its causes and point to solutions.”

Research Scientist Ana Poblacion from Children’s HealthWatch agreed that hunger is a somewhat invisible condition, which makes it easy for people not experiencing it to think that it doesn’t exist. In truth, it often exists in pockets. For example, she shared data showing that in 2019, almost two thirds of individuals served by the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center lived in households at risk of food insecurity—seven times higher than the statewide average. And breaking state data down by race shows that Latinx and Black households have had especially high rates of hunger and volatility during recessionary periods. The research was also clear that food insecure families are more likely to struggle on other fronts too, such as health care, child care and rent.

Boston Indicators Research Manager Trevor Mattos picked up the story about hunger in the wake of COVID. “The ‘good times’ pre-pandemic were not that good for everyone,” he said, reminding viewers that eight percent of households in the Commonwealth struggled with food insecurity before the pandemic hit. New numbers reveal that more than 1 million people are now experiencing hunger and one-fifth of Massachusetts households with children are food insecure. As in the pre-pandemic universe Poblacion described, the Latinx community makes up an outsize proportion of that group, but, while every demographic is worse off, the Black community has seen the sharpest uptick in hunger, which had recovered considerably since the 2009 recession, but now is worse than ever. Mattos reported that calls to Project Bread’s Food Source Hotline have jumped more than 400% since the shut-down, dominated by queries about pandemic EBT—or Electronic Benefits Transfer cards—to take the place of school-provided meals.  

Project Bread Director Erin McAleer responded to these data presentations with the sad truth that, “COVID only put a spotlight on inequalities that have been there,” and stressed that hunger is a solvable problem.

In the subsequent dialogue with City of Boston Office of Food Initiatives Director Catalina Lopéz-Ospina and East Boston Neighborhood Health Center (EBNHC) CEO Manny Lopes, moderated by Children’s HealthWatch Executive Director Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, all agreed that long-term, systemic solutions to reduce hunger are needed—and that charity, essential in filling gaps, would not be powerful enough to change the situation and meet all needs. 

Indeed, Lopéz-Ospina remarked, “The data is a wake-up call to local and federal governments to take action.” She and Lopes were able to point to other figures and neighborhood anecdotes that brought the researchers’ numbers to life. As Lopes put it, “The data paints a picture of the battles we see play out every day.” Many low-wage essential workers live in East Boston—and working remotely isn’t an option. Even when their health allows them to go to work, when schools are closed they can’t afford child care and thus can’t work. EBNHC’s “care navigators,” who help families with health and wellness issues, saw calls go from 100 per month pre-pandemic to more than 100 per week, mostly seeking food-related assistance. He said he wishes his doctors could give a prescription for food that would be supported by insurers, because that would be the best medicine for many of his center’s patients. 

That might be one policy change that could address the issues. A number of audience questions asked about others. Ettinger de Cuba cited a 10 percent drop in applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits after the 2019 federal rule change threatening to ban citizenship or visas to any who are “at risk of becoming a public charge.” That could impact an immigrant seeking food aid for their American-born child. Getting rid of the public charge rule topped many panelists’ lists of actions. Convincing the U.S. Senate to provide immediate aid by acting on the HEROES Act 2.0, which was passed by the House and is now sitting on the Speaker’s desk, was another. Other suggestions were to increase SNAP benefits and expand eligibility for assistance. 

While panel members shared a number of powerful ideas to reduce food insecurity, there was also general agreement, that food couldn’t be tackled in isolation – that it exists as part of what Pressley described as “the comorbidities of structural racism,” including lack of affordable housing, wage inequality and lack of subsidized child care.

“No one is pro-hunger,” McAleer pointed out. “But we need to assess what we’re doing to be anti-hunger. We need to recognize that hunger is a political issue.”