New York state and national food banks – which help keep struggling families from starving – have faced increasing pressure since spring, when COVID-19 erupted in the United States.
While poor economic indicators for state soup kitchens show no sign of abating, food insecurity can be blamed on the unemployed economy rather than on the coronavirus hotspots, said doctoral candidate Anne Byrne in her Sept. 9 testimony before the New York State Legislature.
In research conducted by Byrne and David Just, Professor Susan Eckert Lynch in Science and Business at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, they found that the demand for food bank services was followed in areas where unemployment was increasing, not necessarily in places where cases of COVID-19 were high, he said. New York State Assembly hearing on food security.
“This increase in demand for kitchens does not fully reflect the locations where cases are severe,” said Byrne, a doctoral candidate in applied economics and management, who studied food and agricultural economics at Dyson. “New York City is experiencing a traumatic rate of COVID-19 cases, but that doesn’t mean that New York City is a place where food banks are experiencing greater demand.”
The need for food bank services is basically a reflection of economic conditions, he said.
“While the surge in demand coincides with a pandemic, a pandemic is not the underlying cause,” Byrne said. “For that reason, while we may see an end to the pandemic with the introduction of a vaccine, we shouldn’t expect to see a drop in demand for food banks until the economy recovers.”
Across the US, distribution by major food banks was 80% greater in spring 2020 than it was in spring 2019, according to Byrne. The surge in demand is being countered by the Emergency Food Assistance Program, a US Department of Agriculture program that distributes food to charitable food aid organizations.
From early March to late June, food banks across the country distributed more than 1.9 billion meals to people facing hunger in the United States, according to Feeding America, the country’s largest domestic hunger relief organization.
State Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, D-28th, from Queens, chair of the Assembly Committee for Social Services, asked Byrne how state policymakers could reduce food insecurity. Byrne suggests focusing on issues of normal economic development, such as housing, work and child care, and suggests that states ask the federal government to increase its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, previously called food stamps.
“That’s the number one way to reduce pressure on food banks,” said Byrne. “[The Assembly must] recommends … to increase the benefits of SNAP. “
Byrne further suggested that when allocating resources to different parts of the state, consider community-based unemployment rates as a major component of food insecurity, rather than a metric around the COVID-19 caseload.
“The data shows that the states with the highest unemployment rates continue to be the strongest predictors of high levels of food insecurity,” he said.
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