COVID-19 continues to impact food insecurity

The unprecedented public health challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have had far reaching effects across the nation, so experts in New Jersey and Rhode Island took a hard look at some key issues.

Beyond concerns about community spread, access to testing and treatment, and an overwhelmed health care system, the pandemic has exacerbated previous existing social and economic inequities impacting the most basic of human needs.

Food insecurity exists in every county across the United States, from the poorest neighborhoods to the most affluent.

Parents skip meals so they can feed their children, seniors choose between buying medicine and food, and students decide between their education and food. These tough choices are an unfortunate reality for many of our New Jersey neighbors.

Realizing this, researchers at the University of Rhode Island began a comprehensive study to examine the extent of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food access in Rhode Island.

The project, led by Assistant Professor Sarah Amin in the College of Health Sciences’ Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, began in August with a series of in-depth interviews of 25 state and local community stakeholders.

The team interviewed representatives from state agencies, nonprofit organizations, food pantries, Health Equity Zones and others to better understand state and local response to food access and food insecurity during the pandemic.

The research, while still in the early stages of analysis, is particularly timely coming on the heels of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank 2020 Status Report on Hunger in Rhode Island. The report found that one in four Rhode Island households suffer from food insecurity.

More than 1.2 million people in New Jersey face hunger every day. Nearly 400,000 of them are children. When they don’t have enough food to eat, they can suffer direct and dramatic effects on their physical development and mental well being.

The number of New Jerseyans who have uncertain access to healthy food was expected to increase by more than 50% last year because of the pandemic, bringing the total of “food insecure” people to 1.2 million, or 13.5% of the population, according to a report issued in Semptember.

On September 30, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey (CFBNJ) released the report report, titled “COVID-19’s Impact on Food Insecurity in New Jersey,” which used statistical projections from Feeding America to examine hunger and recommend action to address urgent needs.  

CFBNJ fulfilled its mission to provide food, help, and hope to New Jersey neighbors in need through support more than 66 million nutritious meals, nearly 18 million pounds of fresh produce, over 79,000 volunteer hours, more than 51,000 food boxes provided to at-risk seniors, more than 300,000 meals served to kids in need and about 426,000 miles driven for deliveries.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dire impact on food access in our state. The recent report issued by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank indicated that food insecurity in Rhode Island has reached record levels in 2020,” said Amin. “The potential for this rising food insecurity to severely worsen existing health disparities is profound.”

Preliminary findings suggest that organizations are struggling to meet the food needs

of Rhode Islanders for several reasons including: rising job loss/unemployment among Rhode Islanders leading to increased need; a lack of culturally relevant foods and services; insufficient resources (i.e., funding, personal protective equipment, staff, technology, time); and the increased need has served to exacerbate existing food access challenges connected to transportation and food storage needs.

Additionally, many community stakeholders cited that social distancing and isolation experienced by their staff as well as community members heightened the challenges to get food to Rhode Islanders.

“For many of the stakeholders we spoke with, learning how to operate in this new reality was a challenge. Many of these organizations and agencies and their staff work very closely with the communities and people they serve, including those residing in high-risk populations,” said graduate assistant Tobar Santamaria, a master’s degree candidate who served as a research assistant on the project. “They suddenly found themselves working to respond to an urgent need that was increasing rapidly while also attempting to learn and adhere to new public health guidelines in order to keep everyone safe.”

Despite these challenges, stakeholders also noted a number of successes including: enhanced collaboration; more effective communication among stakeholders and the communities they serve; as well as the development of new initiatives to support Rhode Islanders’ food access needs.

In one instance, a local Health Equity Zone created a grocery certificate program working with another local nonprofit organization to assist those in the Spanish-speaking community – which has included not only providing certificates to help with food needs, but also a staff member able to assist them in their native language to increase their level of comfort participating in the program.

“Despite the many challenges during this time, the way state agencies and community organizations have come together to help meet the needs of the community has been a real bright spot,” said Tovar. “However, there is still much work to be done. Food insecurity continues to be a rising concern in the state, and a prolonged economic recovery will only serve to perpetuate that well into the future.”

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