Food Insecurity Rises In U.S. As Pandemic Relief Stalls In Washington : Consider This from NPR Two years ago, about 12% of American households reported they didn't have enough food. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, that number has nearly doubled. It's even more severe for Black and Hispanic families.

Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive reports on a giant food bank in San Antonio that can barely keep up with the growing demand.

Experts say the problem of food insecurity in America needs bigger, longer-term solutions. Erthain Cousin, former U.S. Ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, tells NPR's Michel Martin the country needs to think bigger than food banks and start investing in businesses that can improve nutrition in low-income communities.

And Jim Carnes of Alabama Arise, an organization working to end poverty in Alabama, explains that food insecurity goes hand in hand with poverty. And the main factor driving poverty in the U.S.? Medical expenses.

Listen to a special episode of All Things Considered all about food insecurity during the pandemic.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.
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Millions Of Americans Can't Afford Enough To Eat As Pandemic Relief Stalls In D.C.

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Millions Of Americans Can't Afford Enough To Eat As Pandemic Relief Stalls In D.C.

Millions Of Americans Can't Afford Enough To Eat As Pandemic Relief Stalls In D.C.

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(SOUNDBITE OF CARROTS POURING)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

That is the sound of carrots, thousands of carrots being poured by volunteers into brown paper bags at a gigantic food bank pop-up in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right. Have you been through here before?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No, this is my first time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, so at each tent, they're...

CORNISH: Back in March, when the pandemic first really hit the U.S., the San Antonio Food Bank started doing these mega-distributions most Fridays at the Alamodome, a sports arena near downtown. Months later, they're still getting more than a thousand families coming through each week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROSARIO CEPEDA: There's no work. There's not income, so that's the - one of the reason. You know, at least we have food.

CORNISH: Rosario Cepeda is here for the first time. She's a hairstylist. State COVID quarantine shut her down for a while in the spring. And her business isn't back to normal yet, so she was in line at the food bank at 5 a.m. even though food isn't handed out until 9 because she had to get back to work. And she's got even more mouths to feed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CEPEDA: My daughter, she has four kids. And the husband - you know, there's no work and then no rent. And they had to move in the house. That's the toughest thing.

CORNISH: Cepeda and her family aren't alone. Two years ago, about 12% of American households reported that the food they bought just didn't last and that they didn't have enough money to get more. Then the pandemic hit. That number nearly doubled. For households with children, the food insecurity rate close to tripled.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS; as the pandemic recession drags on, millions of Americans can't afford enough to eat. And the clash between the White House and Democratic lawmakers means there may not be more help on the way.

From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Wednesday, October 7.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. OK, let's go back to that food distribution site at the arena in San Antonio a few weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ERIC COOPER: I had never seen lines this long in my life. I just - I couldn't even wrap my head around - it's what you'd see at a Spurs game. But it was a food distribution, and knowing it was a food distribution was so surreal.

CORNISH: Eric Cooper is used to seeing food bank lines because he's the president of the San Antonio Food Bank. But until the pandemic, he'd never seen anything like this. Texas Public Radio reporter Paul Flahive spoke to Rosario Cepeda and Cooper.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

COOPER: You know, what are we doing here? Like, this is just crazy. I've gotten used to seeing this now.

CORNISH: Food banks like his have given out billions of meals this year, and those numbers are up in 2020 thanks to coronavirus. The country's largest network of food banks say there's been a 60% increase in the number of people needing their help compared to just two years ago. And a huge portion of those people have never visited a food bank before this year's pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EUGENE CHO: The numbers are staggering, and I think this is the reason why it's hard for us to quantify. We're talking 54 million people in our cities, in our nation right now. That's about 1 in 6 Americans.

CORNISH: This is Rev. Eugene Cho. He's the president and CEO of Bread for the World. It's a faith-based nonprofit that tries to address hunger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHO: So just walk around your neighborhood for a second. And out of every six person, one of these fellow Americans are experiencing hunger on some level. And certainly, it's impacting children, especially Black and brown families - African American, Latino families. In fact, the recent Census Bureau data indicates that nearly 40% of Black and Latino families with children are struggling to put food on the table.

CORNISH: Millions of people are still out of work or working less than they'd like. Lots of schools are still closed. That means many children don't have access to free or reduced-price meals that they'd get there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHO: I think what this pandemic has caused is exploited some of the fragility of our lives, of our society and of our safety net as well. So as a result, organizations like Bread for the World - we're calling upon our lawmakers, upon Congress, upon the White House to amplify. We need to strengthen these safety net programs during this time because it makes sense. This is a unprecedented epidemic that we're facing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: In Washington, there seems to be acknowledgement all around that more federal relief is needed. But talks about a new relief package came to a stop Tuesday night, when the president called off negotiations on a big multipart stimulus package. House Democrats wanted more than $400 billion for struggling state and local governments. Trump says at best, he'd sign some smaller standalone bills. On Wednesday morning, his top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, put it this way to CNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY KUDLOW: I think what President Trump was saying yesterday is that, all right, we're too far apart for a gigantic bill. Yes, we've only got four weeks till the election, and we've got a justice of the Supreme Court to get passed. It's too far - too close to the election, not enough time to get stuff done at this stage of the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: In the short term, the battle over this spending matters to a lot of people, but experts and advocates say the problem of food insecurity in America needs some bigger long-term solutions. Ertharin Cousin has spent her career thinking about those solutions - seriously. She's got a long resume with titles like U.S. ambassador for the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization and former executive director of the U.N. World Food Program. She tells my colleague Michel Martin America needs to start thinking bigger than food banks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ERTHARIN COUSIN: We focus on the charitable system. And we should have a charitable system that responds to emergencies, that ensures that people have access to food. But we also need to invest in businesses that can provide access to nutritious foods that people - giving people the ability to purchase the food that they need to meet their requirements and not just stand in line for a box.

MICHEL MARTIN: Are there things that individuals can do if they don't, you know, own a farm, if they don't, you know, sit on a board of directors? Is there something that people who are listening to our conversation right now could do to help solve this problem?

COUSIN: There are food policy action councils that have sprung up all around the country that your listeners should Google and get involved. There are also new farm-to-consumer systems coming online that will allow for purchase directly from farmers that will make our system more agile by giving people the ability to purchase food that's closer to them. We also have new laws coming on the books that allow for the consumers who are entrepreneurs to begin to develop their own food products and sell them at farmer's markets.

What we'll find as we move forward is that people getting involved with their food and knowing the system, knowing who their farmer is, where that food is produced, is going to create a different demand for food in our society that will result in ever more nutritious food becoming available.

MARTIN: You know, the complexity of this - of these issues that - again, the whole question of poverty and hunger, you know, global conflict, etc., may make some people feel, like, hopeless, like nothing will work. Is there anything you can share - like a story, maybe a personal experience - that helped you to understand that solutions to this problem are possible?

COUSIN: When I was executive director of the World Food Program, I never took pictures with babies with flies on their eyes and bloated bellies because we've all gotten far too accustomed to seeing that as the face of poverty and hunger. But what I witnessed were men and women who were working as smallholder farmers, as entrepreneurs to provide for the food needs of their children as well as for the markets that they supported, that provided them with income.

And so what I always did was take pictures with fat, healthy babies to demonstrate to the world what was possible when the investments were made that allowed people to support their own food needs by creating the businesses, creating the agricultural production, supporting the systems that would ensure the availability of affordable, nutritious food. That demonstrated that we could change the outcomes for people by helping them change their own lives.

CORNISH: Ambassador Ertharin Cousin, formerly of the U.N. World Food Program, now at Stanford University.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: One other thing that's been linked to food insecurity that's relevant right now - medical expenses. All right, stay with me. Food insecurity goes hand in hand with poverty. Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau says the No. 1 factor driving Americans into poverty - medical expenses. In the midst of a global pandemic with 7.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 here in America, some say it's time to take a harder look at how the U.S. can prevent one from leading to the other. I want to go back to my colleague Michel Martin because she spoke with Jim Carnes about why that is. He's the policy director of Alabama Arise, a nonprofit dedicated to ending poverty in that state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JIM CARNES: There are a number of factors moving at the same time. A huge one is the number of people without health insurance. But particularly in states like Alabama, which is one of 12 states that have not accepted Medicaid expansion, we have hundreds of thousands of people who don't have that safety net. So No. 1, they don't have somebody helping them pay their medical bills. When that's the case, a number of other factors kick into play. So you have people who are delaying getting medical care because they don't have a way to pay for it. And when their problem gets unavoidable and they do have to seek care, that care is more expensive because it's late and their condition is worse, so the bills are higher.

MARTIN: Is the connection between health care costs, poverty and food insecurity one that is starting to make sense to people? Are people starting to connect the dots?

CARNES: I think they are. Our state government has chosen three factors to target to try to improve. And those are obesity, infant mortality and substance use disorders. So the fact that the state and our state leaders are recognizing that we really have to do something about these terrible health outcomes that are related to nutrition tells me that they are opening up to solutions that they may not have considered before.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, as you surely know, a Supreme Court justice associate, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, died recently. There is now a vacancy on the high court. And we know that the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case that could possibly overturn the Affordable Care Act this fall, which could greatly affect Medicaid expansion. If that happens - I mean, I recognize that's a hypothetical - where do you go from there?

CARNES: Rest assured that the advocates around the country are going to be staying in the fight to continue to address the gaping holes in our health care system. And there are other ways to go about that work, so we'll just pick up. I'm hoping and praying that it doesn't come to that, that the path forward will be moving up the same path we've had and reaching the goal. But if we don't and if we get thrown off that path, we'll make another one.

CORNISH: That was Jim Carnes of Alabama Arise, an organization hoping to end poverty in Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: And to hear a special episode of All Things Considered focused on pandemic-era food insecurity, please visit our show notes.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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