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Tackling Food Insecurity During a Global Pandemic

COVID-19 and Food Insecurity:

This year has been full of stress and uncertainty. As a result of the COVID-19 virus, most of us have experienced some sort of loss. Many people are experiencing financial challenges due to losing a job or having to accept reduced hours or reduced pay. This change in household income can result in decreased quality and quantity of food, thus, affecting overall health.

Food insecurity describes a situation in which access to healthy food becomes uncertain or

unavailable at all times. The COVID-19 virus has made accessing food more difficult. Individuals who experience food insecurity have a harder time meeting their nutritional needs. This leads to a higher risk of developing diseases and infections. This is because the body's immune system which helps to fight off infection is compromised.

Before COVID-19, food insecurity was still prevalent in America as roughly 37 million people were food insecure. Of these 37 million Americans experiencing food insecurity, 11 million were children. It is estimated that 50 million people, including 17 million children, will face food insecurity as a result of COVID-19. These estimates clearly show drastic economic downfall for many Americans as a result of COVID-19. ¹

This virus disproportionately targets older adults, those with long term diseases, and people of color. Unfortunately, these vulnerable populations are also the ones at a higher risk for experiencing food insecurity.

How Oppression Influences Access to Food:

In New York, reduced investment in low income communities of color have resulted in less grocery stores and less access to food. Oftentimes, grocery stores have heightened security targeted towards individuals of color, thus making targeted members of the community feel unwelcome. Additionally, advertisement strategies often push unhealthy food options, such as fast food and processed foods, in low income communities. Racial injustice affects food, healthcare and agriculture processes leading to decreased access to food, and increased diet-related diseases. Because of these inequalities, people of color are more susceptible to COVID-19.²

What Resources Exist to Help Tackle Food insecurity?

Charitable organizations, such as food pantries and soup kitchens, increase food availability to those in need. Most of these organizations have altered their services to accommodate social distancing guidelines.

Older adults are at a higher risk of suffering serious consequences as a result of COVID-19. Additionally, older adults face physical, social, cognitive and financial barriers in accessing enough healthy food. The additional barriers imposed on this vulnerable population by the COVID-19 creates further problems in access to food. Meals on Wheels is a program offered to low income older adults. Meals on Wheels drivers check in on the older adults and provide human connection. This program delivers nutritional meals to your door for free, with a request for a donation. Additional resources for accessing food an older adult can be found on this USDA website.

Federally Assisted Programs:

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Services department provides 15 federal nutrition assistance programs to help low-income individuals access healthy foods. Some of the federally assisted programs include The National School Lunch Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). These are explained below. For more information about federal nutrition programs, please visit the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services website.

National School Lunch Program

What is the National School Lunch Program?

This federally funded program serves school aged children and is available in public and nonprofit private schools as well as residential childcare institutions. It provides nutrient rich low cost or free lunches, and usually breakfast, to low income children. Roughly 30.4 million students relied on reduced or free meals at school in 2016.³ Qualifications are based on household income and family size.³ Those with incomes between the 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals.³ Families with incomes below 130% of the Federal poverty level are eligible for free school lunch meals.³ Each State has its own application form, please click this link to be directed to the USDA’s State Directory.

How it Helps

The National School Lunch Program reduces food insecurity, positively impacts health and obesity of children using the program, and helps children meet their nutritional needs to perform well in school. Research has shown that this program reduces poor health by 29% and reduces risk of obesity by 17%.⁴

Accessing these Benefits during a Pandemic:

Due to the pandemic, the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer option have been extended in replacement of the National School Lunch Program. These programs allow families who qualify to pick up lunch, and usually breakfast as well. Pick up hours are usually between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm. However, now that parents are going back to work, parents are less likely to be able to pick up the meals for their children.⁵

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

What is it?

Nutrition assistance program that helps low income households stretch their food budget. Eligible applicants will receive a benefit card that provides a monthly allotment of money. This benefit card works like a debit card and allows you to buy food products including fruits, vegetables, breads, cereals, snacks and non-alcoholic beverages.

How Does it Help?

This program helps fight hunger and food insecurity. In 2015, SNAP benefits helped 8.4 million people avoid poverty. Additionally, SNAP raised two million children out of poverty. SNAP provides immediate and temporary financial assistance to those who lose their jobs or in times of economic crisis.⁷


There is a SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot available in some States. This pilot program provides a secure, private and easy to use system that allows individuals using SNAP to buy food online from select food retailers. To learn more about the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot, click here.

For more information about SNAP, please click here.

Special Supplemental Nutrition program for Women, Infant and Children (WIC):

What is it?

This is a federally funded nutrition assistance program for low income pregnant or postpartum women, infants and children up until their fifth birthday, who are at nutritional risk. WIC provides nutrition education, healthcare and social services referrals, breastfeeding support and supplemental foods.⁹

Foods provided by WIC include: infant formula, infant and adult cereals, baby food, vegetables, fruits, whole wheat bread, brown rice, juice, eggs, cheese, peanut butter, tofu, canned fish, and soy beverages. There are different foods provided by WIC depending on the food package you qualify for.⁹

How Does it Help?

Some of the benefits of participating in WIC include fewer premature deaths, fewer infant deaths, improved cognitive development and growth rates. Child diet and diet related outcomes improve. For example, research has shown that children receiving WIC benefits have higher iron, thiamin, vitamin C, niacin and vitamin B 6 intake than low income children not enrolled in WIC.⁹


There are four criteria that have to be met in order to qualify for benefits.⁹

  1. Must meet income requirements. This varies by State.

  2. Must fit into one of the following categories

  3. Pregnant

  4. Postpartum

  5. Breastfeeding (up until the first birthday)

  6. Infanta (up until the first birthday)

  7. Child (up until the child's fifth birthday)

  8. Applicants must apply in the States in which they live

  9. Must be considered to be at nutritional risk.

For information on how to apply, please click here.

Bottom Line:

These are tough and uncertain times. Access to food is a biological need and a basic right. There are resources available to help you and your loved ones get through these times. Accessing these resources will help you relieve some of the financial burden of buying food and ensure you can put a healthy meal on the table for you and your family.

Written by Helayne Speroni on behalf of Supriya Lal.


  1. The Impact of Corona Virus on Local Food Insecurity. Feeding America. Published May 12, 2020. Accessed November 08, 2020.

  2. NY Food 2020; Vision, Research and Recommendations During Covid 19 and Beyond. September 2020. Accessed November 11, 2020

  3. The National School Lunch Program. United States Department of Agriculture. Updated November 2017. Accessed November 11, 2020.

  4. Benefits of School Lunches. Food Research & Action Center. Accessed November 11, 2020References:

  5. Covid 19 Updates. Food Research & Action Center. Accessed November 11, 2020.

  6. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); SNAP Eligibility. U.S Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services. Updates October 01, 2020. Accessed November 11, 2020

  7. The Real Benefits of the SNAP Program. SNAP to Health. Accessed November 11/2020

  8. Covid 19 Updates. Food Research & Action Center. Accessed November 11, 2020.

  9. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); About WIC. The United States Department of Agriculture. Published October 2013. Accessed November 12, 2020

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