Advocates implore Congress to increase spending on anti-hunger programs

In a largely positive review of government programs to address mounting hunger during Covid-19, a panel of experts and advocates speaking at the National Food Security Conference on Wednesday encouraged Congress to boost spending on the anti-hunger programs it has developed since the pandemic began.

They referenced the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program, which distributes unsold produce from farmers to people in need, and Pandemic-EBT, which provides families with extra funds for children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. They also mentioned investment in food banks, and a variety of efforts to get meals to kids despite school closures. 

“All of the above actually works,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and moderator of the panel. “And there is so much need right now that we need an all-of-the-above strategy.”

Since the pandemic struck, food insecurity has increased exponentially. Three times as many children are suffering from food insecurity now as did during the worst of the Great Recession, according to Bauer’s analysis, published earlier this month, which was based on census bureau surveys. Roughly one in six households with children are currently experiencing food insecurity, and that ratio is even higher in Black and Hispanic communities.

Food security advocates across the country are frustrated that Congress has not expanded SNAP during the pandemic. SNAP currently provides nine meals for every one meal that food banks provide, according to Robert Campbell, managing director of policy at the nonprofit Feeding America and one of the speakers on the panel. 

Although hunger groups have been fighting for a temporary increase of 15 percent in SNAP benefits, the Senate did not include it in the latest coronavirus bill, released on Monday night. 

The panelists pointed to the inefficiencies of the government building new programs when Covid-19 hit. “The Farmers to Families Food Box program didn’t go through an existing apparatus, so it was a lot of work, even just logistically, to deal with distributors and nonprofits,” said Campbell. Still, now that it’s in place, advocates want the government to double down.

“The opportunity to utilize the existing infrastructure we have is tremendous to address food insecurity,” said Sandy Curwood, director of the Virginia Department of Education and a speaker on the panel. 

But for now, the investment is not enough, experts on the panel said. With skyrocketing rates of hunger across the United States and a high probability that most kids will not return to school in the fall, food insecurity requires more national attention, they said, and they’re looking to Congress to act.

“All of this is being ripped open for us to look at. How are we going to come to terms with these issues — with food insecurity and poverty for decades?” said Ellen Teller, director of government affairs at the Food Research and Action Center. “Congress needs to take the first step.”