Tackling Hunger and Food Insecurity

A Conversation with Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America

Every day, millions of families in America go hungry — and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic caused record levels of unemployment. As an estimated 17 million more Americans become food insecure in the coming months, organizations like Feeding America and its volunteers are even more critical.

In Spokane, Washington, Second Harvest volunteers and staff prep for mobile distribution amid the COVID-19 crisis. (via Feeding America)

The Feeding America network provides more than 4.2 billion meals to more than 40 million people each year. In response to the increased needs of people who are coping with the economic shutdown due to COVID-19, the network has already distributed nearly 950 million meals in the first two months of the pandemic alone.

Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States, is a network of food banks, food pantries, and meal programs around the country. During these unprecedented times, the efforts of its partners and volunteers have been relentless. Feeding America CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot recently talked to Natalie Gonnella-Platts, director of the Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative, about their tireless efforts, what’s giving her hope, and how Feeding America is working to prevent food waste and improve food security both now and in the future.

Comprised of a robust network of organizations working to feed communities across the country, Feeding America is the second largest charity (based on revenue) in the United States. Why does this network approach matter, and how has it made a difference in ability to reach those in need?

The strength of Feeding America lies in our vast network of 200 member food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs. The expanse of this network means that we are able to serve every county in the United States and makes Feeding America the best-positioned organization to support the food-assistance needs of people impacted by this crisis.

The Feeding America national office provides critical support, securing food and funds for our network of food banks to make sure they have the resources they need to grow, adapt and serve their communities. This collaborative and coordinated approach helps food banks maximize their impact and serve exponentially more people than they could on their own.

The fact that food banks are trusted community-based institutions also means that, through the provision of food, they are able to support people through other services that help improve financial stability and long-term food security. For years, food banks have been operating programs such as job skills training and financial literacy classes, as well as outreach to facilitate people’s applications for federal programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and health care referrals for people who need help managing diet-related illnesses.

By leveraging the scale and expertise of our network, Feeding America is able to feed people today, while helping them overcome their need for food assistance in the future.

Blue Ridge Area Food Bank volunteer loads food into a car. (via Feeding America)

Food insecurity is a serious problem in the United States. How has the COVID-19 crisis changed that landscape?  

For decades, right here in America, there have been tens of millions of individuals, children, and seniors who have not had enough to eat. It often takes an economic crisis, such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, to bring into the light the struggles that people living with hunger and poverty face every day.

Before the pandemic, there were 37 million people in the United States, including 11 million children, who were food-insecure, meaning that they didn’t have regular access to enough nutritious food for a healthy, active life. And that number continues to soar as tens of millions more people need help putting food on their tables.

Before the pandemic, there were 37 million people in the United States, including 11 million children, who were food-insecure... And that number continues to soar as tens of millions more people need help putting food on their tables.

In the six weeks since the pandemic hit our nation, more than 33 million workers have filed new unemployment claims, sending the unemployment rate to 14.7%—its highest level since 1948.

In 2019, the Federal Reserve estimated that 40% of American households do not have the cash on hand to cover a $400 emergency expense. With no buffer to withstand a sudden loss of income, we anticipate that 17 million additional people will become food insecure over the next six months, bringing the total number of people in need of food assistance to 54 million.

Among our member food banks, some have experienced as much as a 200% increase in the number of people served compared to this time last year. The average increase has been as high as 70% and most recently, was reported to be 59%. Of the new individuals being served today, 38% reported that they are seeking help for the first time in their lives.

Addressing food insecurity isn’t simply about addressing hunger but ensuring communities and families have regular access to safe, nutritious, and diverse food options. Why is this important for both individual and community well-being, and how is Feeding America addressing this challenge?

Photos don't do it justice — this timelapse video from the Dallas Morning News shows hundreds of cars lining up to receive food from the North Texas Food Bank on April 16, 2020.

Food, and access to nutritious food, is such a fundamental building block for human beings that when that is not present, nothing else works. Hunger impacts one’s educational achievement, career trajectory, ability to cope with stressful social situations, and especially one’s health outcomes.

This virus has had an inordinate impact on people facing hunger. The CDC reports that people with underlying conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease are at greater risk of serious illness from COVID-19. People who are food insecure are at much higher risk of chronic disease, like obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.  In fact, people served by the Feeding America network are approximately three times more likely to have diabetes and twice as likely to have hypertension than the general population.

Not surprisingly, high rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other illnesses associated with food insecurity have an impact not only on the household budget, but on societal health care costs as well. Nationally, health care costs associated with food insecurity approached $53 billion in 2016. And health care spending for an adult living in a food-insecure household averages $1,834 more than for an adult living in a food-secure household. 

Many of the chronic illnesses of our time can be managed and even prevented when people have access to a variety of nutritious food. But it is harder and more expensive to deliver the fresh, perishable fruits and vegetables, dairy, and protein to many of the most vulnerable communities in America, including rural counties where food insecurity rates are highest.

Many of the chronic illnesses of our time can be managed and even prevented when people have access to a variety of nutritious food. But it is harder and more expensive to deliver the fresh, perishable fruits and vegetables, dairy, and protein to many of the most vulnerable communities in America.

The most nutritious foods are also the most difficult to handle, requiring refrigerated delivery and storage and quick distribution to families. To overcome these challenges, Feeding America is working with partners to test innovative last-mile delivery models, such as third-party transportation providers like Uber, online pantries, and mobile choice pantries, that deliver fresh produce and other items to underserved communities on a regular schedule.

Produce boxes that clients have received from the Montana Food Bank Network. (via Feeding America)

We have enough food in America to feed everyone, yet tens of millions of pounds of food is wasted each year. What can we all do to change this?

In the United States, 72 billion pounds of perfectly good food goes to waste each year.

It is incongruous that 40% of the food grown, processed and transported in this country each year goes to waste while millions of people face hunger, especially now, when everyone is feeling the pinch of shortages of items across the food retail industry. The loss of food occurs at every stage of the food production and distribution system—from farmers to packers and shippers, from manufacturers to retailers to members of the food service industry.

Feeding America is the largest food recovery organization in the U.S. Each year, we rescue more than 1.3 billion pounds of good, safe food that would otherwise have been thrown away. We continue to develop and execute a comprehensive national food sourcing strategy to more efficiently secure as much food as possible, and to become a key solution to our nation’s food waste crisis. We welcome members from across the food industry and the public who want to reduce waste and save on costs to partner with us and with our local food banks and there are tax incentives and protections for companies that choose to donate food rather than discard it. 

What do you wish people knew about food insecurity? Are there common misconceptions/bias that are important to address?

People living with hunger and poverty are often blamed for their circumstances, when the fact is that stagnant wages, high costs of living, and systemic inequities of health care, education, and opportunity are all factors in America’s hunger and poverty problem.

Now due to the impact of COVID-19, much of the increase we’re seeing is people who never imagined they would need to seek charitable food assistance. In situations like this, it’s easy to see how people can become food insecure through no fault of their own. But this is also the case when there isn’t a crisis.

Millions of people in this country live from one paycheck to the next, leaving them vulnerable to financial shocks. And when emergencies happen, people turn to the programs and charities that exist for the sole reason of protecting them from hunger and poverty. Emergency meals and support provide the stable ground that people need to get back on their feet.

People living with hunger and poverty are often blamed for their circumstances, when the fact is that stagnant wages, high costs of living, and systemic inequities of health care, education, and opportunity are all factors in America’s hunger and poverty problem.

How can Americans help now and in the future?

The unique benefit of supporting Feeding America is that people can choose to help nationally or locally, or both.

To support our national efforts, people can visit FeedingAmerica.org to learn about hunger and make a financial donation. This allows Feeding America to provide funding grants to food banks that provide the flexibility they need to serve people most effectively. For Feeding America food banks, that might mean purchasing food for distribution, opening a drive-thru pantry, purchasing fuel for vehicles to deliver meals, or hiring more staff to help in the warehouse. And Feeding America uses a data-driven approach to determine where your donations are needed most.

People can also visit FeedingAmerica.org to find the food bank that serves their area. Because every community is different, local food banks have different needs for support, from food and fund donations to skills-based volunteers. People should contact their local food bank to learn how they can best support their local food bank’s efforts to help their neighbors in need.

The COVID-19 crisis is impacting a record number of people in a very short time, and while we are witnessing an acute need now, we anticipate that people will continue to need help over the coming months, and even years as they work to overcome the financial impact of the pandemic.

Emily Hines, a teacher in the St. Louis area, and her daughters recently packed their 300,000th meal at the St. Louis Area Foodbank. (via Feeding America)

What gives you hope? Where are you seeing America at its best?

What gives me the greatest hope for our society is the myriad of ways that people have come together to help their neighbors in times of this and other crises. Since the pandemic began, food bank staff and volunteer have gone to great lengths to safely continue providing meals to their neighbors, even when it’s meant extending a distribution by four hours to ensure that every single family in line received food.

Partners in the food industry are helping us overcome shortages in our supply chain by running their manufacturing lines to produce food specifically for donation to our food banks. We’ve had an unprecedented level of financial support for our COVID-19 Relief Fund and, through it, have brought many new partners to our mission. Our partners in government have acted to support food banks’ efforts to feed their communities.

And of course, I have hope because of the work of ordinary citizens who are making masks for front-line emergency workers, turning their Little Free Libraries into Little Free Food Pantries, running errands for homebound seniors, and starting GoFundMe campaigns for families faced with coronavirus treatment bills. While there is more to be done, I am inspired and moved by the willingness of so many people to help each other get through this crisis together. I think it’s a testament to people’s deep desire to make the world better than it was before, and I’m confident that together, we will.

I am inspired and moved by the willingness of so many people to help each other get through this crisis together. I think it’s a testament to people’s deep desire to make the world better than it was before, and I’m confident that together, we will.
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