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Experts are concerned about food insecurity during COVID-19

Expert Q&A: KCH's Chelsea Singleton on COVID-19, nutrition and food insecurity

The College of Applied Health Sciences has experts in many areas that have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Periodically we will ask these experts about how their areas of expertise have been impacted and what we can expect in a post-COVID-19 world. Today, we ask Chelsea Singleton, Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health, about nutrition and food insecurity in the time of COVID-19.

Q: School breakfast and lunch programs feed approximately 35 million children. With schools closed, how can we help with feeding vulnerable children?

A: When schools closed due to COVID-19, many districts established an emergency meal distribution system. For example, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) set up more than 270 grab-and-go meal sites that spanned the entire school district. These sites provide daily meals to nutritionally-vulnerable students and their families. Several CPS faculty and staff members volunteer at these grab-and-go sites, so they have been distributing thousands of meals per day since March. Unfortunately, the civil unrest and police brutality protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis have added a new layer of complexity to addressing food insecurity among children. The country is now facing two major public health crises. Several food retail stores and emergency meal distribution sites are now temporarily closed or have limited hours of operation. This is a key concern since underserved communities are experiencing disproportionately higher rates of COVID-19 and food insecurity right now. I highly recommend everyone read the article published by Dr. Sara Bleich and colleagues published via The Hill. It describes the challenge of addressing child food insecurity during a pandemic and a national fight for racial justice. 

Q: Are governments, federal, state and local, doing enough to address emergency meal distribution?

A: I personally believe federal, state, and local governments are doing the best they can given these unprecedented circumstances. COVID-19 has proven to the most challenging public health crisis the world has faced in a century. Many cities and school districts did not have a solid plan for establishing an effective emergency meal distribution system prior to the onset of COVID-19. Since March, I have witnessed districts across the country open and close emergency meal pick-up sites, change the hours and days of operation for these pick-up sites, and alter the types of meals they provide. These day-to-day changes suggest they are trying to address gaps in access to ensure economically-vulnerable children and families are supported. I have also seen school districts reach out to corporations, community organizations, and public figures to host fundraising campaigns to strengthen their emergency meal safety net. On the federal side, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) gave school districts the flexibility of enacting these emergency meal distribution measures using their funds from the National School Lunch Program and the Summer Food Service Program. The FFCRA also temporarily lifted the cap on federal school meal spending during the pandemic. 

Q: What are healthy food alternatives if you have trouble getting fresh fruit or vegetables?

A: I recommend you search for frozen fruits and vegetables if you are unable to obtain fresh produce. Many limited services stores, such as dollar stores, pharmacies, and convenience stores, stock a small selection of frozen produce. Frozen fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense and low in calories, so I recommend you purchase frozen produce before buying canned/shelf-stable items. Avoid frozen vegetables that come prepared in some type of butter or cheese sauce. This sauce is often very high in sodium (i.e., salt). 

Q: Are there concerns with a diet high in canned foods?

A: Consuming a diet high in canned foods can be concerning because canned foods often have high volumes of sodium and added sugars. Sodium and sugar help preserve the food for longer periods so they can remain shelf stable. Consuming high volumes of sodium and sugar can increase your risk for hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. If you have no choice but to purchase canned/shelf-stable food items, I recommend you buy items that are labeled “low sodium” or “no sugar added”. Read the nutrition facts panel and search for items low in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. Avoid canned meals such as soups, ravioli, and chili. They often have very high sodium and fat content. 

Q: What changes are happening to food landscapes, either because of supply chain issues or due to increased demand?

A: I think it is too early to assess how COVID-19 has changed food landscapes in America. So far, we know that the pandemic has crippled the food and hospitality industry. A large percentage of the several million Americans who are unemployed due to the pandemic work in the food and hospitality industry. Restaurants were forced to close to slow the spread of the virus and enforce social distancing guidelines. These closures have resulted in major disruptions in food supply chains that involve the farming, fishing, dairy, and meat production industries. Many farmers sell their supply directly to restaurants, so there is lower than usual demand for their food and beverage products. Establishing new relationships to supply directly to grocery stores, who were experiencing food shortages in March, does not happen overnight. Several steps must be taken to redirect supply chains. Grocery stores, supermarkets, and warehouse stores (i.e., Costco, Sam’s Club) were labeled essential businesses; however, they were forced to limit their hours of operation and number of employees at work at any given time. Overall, I predict that this pandemic will have lasting effects on the food landscape. Not all food businesses will survive. I am mostly concerned with the impact the pandemic will have on food retail businesses, both healthy and unhealthy, in underserved urban and rural areas of America. Regardless of the types of food sold, food retail businesses provide important economic and job opportunities in low-income and low-resourced communities. The pandemic may shift food landscapes in a way that increases food and financial insecurity. 
Q:The USDA issued a letter denying several types of waivers requested by state SNAP agencies. What effect does that have on people who rely on programs such as SNAP?

A: To provide readers some context: SNAP is a federally-funded program that is administered and maintained by the states. The USDA’s Food & Nutrition Service (FNS) develops the guidelines and requirements. In March, most states submitted various waivers to alter the FNS guidelines and requirements to address the growing number of people who have applied for SNAP benefits and requested an increase in their benefits. This letter stated that several requests to adjust the SNAP eligibility requirements and application process were denied by FNS. If permitted, these waivers would give states more flexibility to meet the needs of the large number of newly unemployed Americans. Some of these denials have potential to increase food security among low-income populations. For example, FNS denied requests to 1. allow states to exceed the maximum benefit allotment for a household’s size and 2. allow all new SNAP applicants to apply under expedited processing. Because all schools closed, students (both school-aged and college) are now at home the entire day. School-aged children are no longer eating at school and college students are no longer eating on their campuses. This increases the number of meals that need to be prepared and served in the home. Furthermore, newly unemployed individuals are having to complete the usual paperwork and eligibility verification process, which delays the timeline for them to start receiving SNAP benefits. The FNS did mention that they are working to implement the flexibilities provided by Congress under the FFCRA. They also increased the volume of USDA foods available in local foods banks and allowed states to give supplements to SNAP households who normally receive less than the maximum benefit allowed for their household size. A complete list of waivers can be found here.

Q: Food insecurity has risen sharply since COVID-19 was branded a pandemic. Certainly hunger is an issue, but what other deleterious effects does food insecurity bring?

A: Food insecurity can lead to a variety adverse conditions. Epidemiologic studies have linked food insecurity to obesity, depression, poor academic performance among children, and violence (both community and domestic). These four outcomes are particularly concerning because the pandemic has resulted in many Americans 1. not engaging in sufficient levels of physical activity due to COVID-19 concerns, 2. not regularly communicating and interacting with friends and colleagues face-to-face, 3. taking classes from home because of school closures, and 4. spending most their day in the house with members of their immediate family. Unfortunately, several reports and research studies published since March have shown spikes in depression, anxiety, and intimate partner violence across the country. As a result, local, state, and federal public health agencies had to set up more mental health and domestic abuse emergency hotlines. Thus, food insecurity is a major concern right now because it can negatively impact physical health, mental health, and interpersonal relationships. 

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