CAMI on COVID-19: Addressing the Challenge of Food Insecurity

The COVID-19 pandemic has created significant health and financial insecurity for millions of Americans. The incredible economic stress, coupled with anxiety around the health and safety of our friends and family, has made it difficult for families to cope.

Chief among these concerns is food insecurity, particularly as parents face layoffs and schools remain closed making it more difficult for the poorest students’ to get access to meals. Food insecurity is not usually front-page news, but it is all too real for families across our nation: Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that in 2018, 14.3 million households (or 11.1% of households) were food insecure.

COVID-19 has made the problem even more significant, with a Feeding America study finding that the number of food-insecure Americans could rise anywhere between 9.9 to 17.1 million as a result of layoffs and other issues related to the pandemic.

CAMI is focused on addressing the policy, management and operational obstacles to addressing food insecurity. Read Stan Soloway’s recent op-ed in Government Executive here.

This problem will only be made worse as we enter the fall. The pandemic has not abated in many areas, and it is unclear how schools will choose to handle reopening. Many children rely on school break and/or lunch through USDA programs to get their basic nutritional needs. The National School Lunch Program serves more than 29 million children every day, while the School Breakfast Program serves almost 15 million. If schools choose to remain closed or modify operations significantly, these programs will be more difficult to administer. Public health experts also predict that we may see a second wave of the virus upon entering the fall, which along with flu season could lead to a number of new and continuing challenges, including food insecurity, access to food and continued unemployment.

Additionally, the change in seasons will also impact the availability of many crops, and programs that have been given additional resources in the initial response to the pandemic may see additional support expire in a hopelessly gridlocked Congress.

The Solution

So how do we get on the path to a solution? Accountability, modernization and innovation.

USDA operates programs that are critical to improving our response: the AMS Program is implementing the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), which includes the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. The Farmers to Families Food Box Program has already delivered 50 million food boxes this summer, and will continue to increase the goals for the program over the next few months.

To realize the full potential of these programs, it is important for the USDA to have the right processes in place that can give an accurate, full picture of the situation across the country.

CAMI Recommendations

In order to achieve the best outcomes for citizens and all stakeholders, we must ensure a flexible and responsive approach. CAMI supports measures to ensure USDA:

  1. Utilize the vast array of publicly accessible data to accurately provide insight and real-time decision making;
  2. Forecast where problems may emerge to allow USDA to efficiently and rapidly address them, and show exactly what is needed down to the local level; and
  3. Provide new insights and visibility across ALL key USDA food and nutrition programs.

Data is critical to delivering an effective response to the crisis. This data must be available in real-time to ensure that our assistance programs can be responsive and benefits can be accurately distributed to those who need them. In order to best respond to the many challenges in the current situation, our federal agencies must have data-driven visibility to view the full extent of the problem.

USDA must also look for long-term solutions, even though the surge in food insecurity may be short-lived. Food insecurity and the food supply chain remains a problem even when we are not in the middle of a pandemic, and pivoting to a more open data-oriented approach is the first step in looking for a long-term solution to supporting farmers and ranchers, schools, and families that rely on nutrition programs – inside and outside of the pandemic.