Sunday, January 24, 2021

Hunger: A Growing Problem During the Pandemic 

food bankFood Security. It’s a term we hear a lot these days. But defining food security can be difficult. There are literally hundreds of definitions and an even greater number of food security indicators. As defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS), food security is “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” More precise definitions include references to food preferences, dietary needs, safety, etc.

   The government began measuring household food security in 1995. During that year, they found that approximately 12% of the nation’s households experienced some level of food insecurity. 7.8 million households were classified as food insecure without hunger (without reduced food intake) and 4.2 million were classified as food insecure with hunger.

   You can compare that to 2011, when household food insecurity peaked at 14.9%. And to 2019 when, according to Feeding America, a leading national nonprofit food bank network, the country saw its lowest household food insecurity rate in 20 years; an estimated 10.5% (down from 11.1% in 2018).

   Of course, that was prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which quickly exposed the lack of security in our food chain.

Food Insufficiency and Mental Health

   One of the less-considered, but clearly alarming consequences of this pandemic has been the way that it’s increased food insufficiency in the United States. Food insufficiency is the most extreme form of food insecurity. According to ERS, it occurs when families, “sometimes or often do not have enough to eat”.

   A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicinefound a 25% increase in food insufficiency during the COVID-19 pandemic (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074937972100012X). The researchers responsible for the study also found that people that didn’t have enough to eat reported inferior mental health; with 89% of food-insufficient Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety, compared to 63% of food-sufficient Americans, and 83% of food-insufficient Americans reporting symptoms of depression, compared to 49% of food-sufficient Americans.

   The study also determined that the association between food insufficiency and poor mental health symptoms is lessened among people who receive free groceries and meals. Kyle T. Ganson, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, and co-author of the study has been quoted as saying, “Policymakers should expand benefits and eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other programs to address both food insecurity and mental health.” SNAP (more commonly known as ‘food stamps’) is the government’s largest food-assistance program for low-income Americans, benefiting 38 million people in 2019 and amounting to approximately $129 in support per household member per month.Since February of 2019, there’s been about a 15 percent increase in SNAP usage; a surge described in a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities as “unprecedented.”

   The Ganson et.al. study maintains that future COVID-19-related policies should aim to increase public awareness of and provide additional funding to school food programs and food banks.

Supporting Food Banks 

   Throughout the pandemic, food banks and pantries have provided millions of Americans with much-needed food. People from every socio-economic level have required assistance; many for the first time. Typically, food banks rely on donated food, but many are now facing shortages and, in order to meet a demand that has grown to unprecedented levels, are buying food.

   I recently read about Cornell University alumni, Rick and Laura Pedersen, who own Pedersen Farms in Seneca Castle, NY, being selected as the Cornell Alliance for Science 2020 Farmer(s) of the Year, after they donated 78,600 pounds of butternut squash and 15,000 pounds of kale to neighborhood food banks. The donated food was distributed through a local mutual aid network coordinated by BluePrint (blueprintgeneva.org), shortly before Thanksgiving. Kudos to the Pedersons and others like them.

Nourish New York 

   On Jan. 19th, Governor Cuomo announced that the State would be providing an additional $25 million to continue the Nourish NY initiative, an enterprise that many advocates say has been crucial to feeding at-risk New Yorkers during the pandemic. Nourish NY directs state funds to food banks and distribution networks that, in turn, use the funds to purchase products from NY farmers, producers, processors, and suppliers at market rates and then distribute that food to those in need.

   As of December 1, 2020, Nourish NY funds have allowed food banks to purchase 17 million pounds of healthy food from over 4,000 New York farm businesses. More than one million NY households received food through those programs.

   North Country farm businesses participating in the Nourish NY initiative include AgriMark (Cabot Cheese) in Chateaugay, Childstock Farms in Malone, Dan’s Dairy (Meier’s Artisan Cheese) in Fort Covington, Nettle Meadow Farm in Warrensburg, Lucki 7 Livestock Co. in Rodman, North Harbor Beef in Sacketts Harbor, Agbiotic Inc. in Sacketts Harbor, and Great Lakes Cheese in Adams.

Caption: The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York provides over 30 million pounds of food a year to 1,000 agencies in 23 counties. It is the only organization of its kind in Northeastern New York. To donate, volunteer, or find food, visit regionalfoodbank.net 

Credit: Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York 

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Richard Gast

Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.




9 Responses

  1. Holly Wolff says:

    Any discussion of food insufficiency in the North Country ought to have included the amazing job done by ADKAction and its partners including Hub on the Hill, ADK Foundation, and 18 local farms and food providers. They went from pandemic response (funded by over 700 individual donors) of nearly 65000 meals to a sustainable program: “To ensure that the food is accessible to anyone who needs it, regardless of income, AdkAction helped The Hub become an authorized SNAP vendor, so they can now accept SNAP (also known as “Food Stamps”). Recognizing that local food is more expensive than conventional and commodity food, AdkAction has been working to leverage existing incentive programs, like Double Up Food Bucks, and created a new project called “Fair Food Pricing” which further subsidizes the cost of food purchased from local farmers, with the hope of adding more local food vendors in the future. ” https://www.adkaction.org/blog/food-packages-now-available-for-purchase-on-sliding-scale/

  2. Vanessa Banti Vanessa says:

    This is a great article. Not stated here but important is that the definitions are not adequate (in my opinion of course) at capturing food quality – the availability of healthy nutritious food that someone can afford. Tons and tons more families are “quality food” insecure than any metric captures, imo.

    And even by the most strict metric – 10% of 300 million people is 30 million people. In the richest nation in the history of the earth. That is a pretty horrifying confirmation that our system has some serious flaws. At least in my opinion.

    • Jeep says:

      I agree! Tighter limitations on what types of food that can be purchased with “food stamps” is needed bad! I see people buying pure junk food with those things!

  3. Susan Post says:

    We will definitely visit Nettle Meadow Farm in Thurman next time we are up that way. Wonderful that they have contributed to feeding the hungry in the Adirondacks and I can’t wait to see their goats. (I’m a fan of goats.)

  4. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Vanessa says: “our system has some serious flaws. At least in my opinion.”

    You’re not alone Vanessa in your opinion. We’ve had poverty since day one. I’ve been going through letters dating back to 1946 that were written to my dad when he was stationed in Alaska during the war. He died a year ago this past January 11th at 95 years old. I’ve been working on a “Tribute” to him which is quite extensive and has been very enlightening for me. My dad always had a soft spot for the poor. I know this from his words over the years, what he wrote and his actions. I recall when I used to drive him down from Blue Mountain Lake to the VA in Albany some few years ago: I would stop in Glens Falls on the way back so he could shop, and there was the time a Salvation Army bell ringer was near the entry to Walmart. My dad stopped, pulled out his wallet, pulled a twenty-dollar bill out, and dropped it in the tin. Always it was a twenty-dollar bill. My dad knew poverty as many people did back during the Depression.

    I found old letters addressed to him from, generally his mom, my grandmother, who I never got to know because I was but a year-old when she died, and some friends. The words in these letters reveal how tough times were back in them days. Apartments to rent were scarce at best. Meat and other food items were scarce back then in accordance to these letters. Below are just a few snippets of what was written to my dad. This was in Brooklyn, NY:

    September 29,1946 “Food is sky high, meat is gradually going to be something of the past.”

    October 6,1946 “It is Sunday, and I invited Dave and Helen Tilson over for dinner. With the meat situation to-day I had a nerve even to think of it, no less to do it. Well, Bob’s girl friend was going to get me a turkey, and the last minute I was disappointed. Well, my butcher managed to give me a small piece of meat. I made some ? and dumpling. Besides Dave and Helen, I had invited Jo, Edith and five of us, that made nine people. So I had instructed our family to go easy on the meat, that meant for Edith and Jo also. We made a joke out of it, each reminding the other to fill up with vegetables. Well, we had enough to go around. It was a nice day, every thing worked out fine.”

    October 12,1946 “It’s terrible here on the food situation no meat. Old women stand in line for hours & then get nothing.”

    October 13,1946 “Things are tough all over these days, especially meat.”

    On November 27,1981 my dad wrote this: “When I was a kid during the 30’s I ate plenty of soured rabbits & squirrels. Sometimes that was the only meat there was for the week. Times were really tough in those days. My mother would send me to the bread bakery, which was about 2 miles away, with a nickel, and I would buy two lb. loaves of bread for 4 cents (day-old bread) un-sliced. The guy in the bakery would give me a stale roll to eat on the way home, and the left-over penny was mine. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you of all the things you could buy for a penny in those days. Not like today when you find pennies all over the place and nobody will pick them up, except me, I always pick them up.”

    “In those days we would go into a deli for lunch and we would buy two bologna sandwiches on rolls, and a Pepsi cola, for 25 cents. We only did this on Saturday though after we were paid for the week, because we had no money during the week, and we brought our lunch from home. It took 3 hours of pay to buy 2 sandwiches and that Pepsi. So that is the way it was back then. Nobody complained because everybody you knew was in the same boat. In other words everybody was equal, all poor. In the long run it was actually the best thing that could happen because it made you realize the value of things, a sense of appreciation so to say. Now you know why I was always tight with a nickel.”

    Life is interesting to say the very least!

    • Boreas says:

      Charlie,

      I find your stories interesting and they refreshed some personal memories.

      Both my parents grew up during the Depression as poor, subsistence farmers using horses to work the farms. Of course, outhouses were the norm. During winter they made extra money from the state by plowing (with horses) and hand shoveling drifts on the roads in rural NW PA’s snow belt. But my parents considered themselves LUCKY because, being farmers, they could always eat. Not always daily meat – but bartering with neighbors who had other assets got the community by. Fresh meat was often accessed from hunting, when successful.

      That is until the War Dept. started buying up all of the farms in the area to build a gigantic TNT munitions facility for the war effort. Suddenly. the families had the first disposable income in their lives (not much!), but no land or livelihood. Luckily, our area was located between 3 steel cities, and tool/die opportunities sprung up in support of the war effort. My dad was drafted into the infantry in 1943 and fought in Europe with the 9th Division “for the duration”. My mother worked in a textile plant for the war effort.

      But I told you that to tell you this – my parents, especially my dad (working as a machinist after his discharge), were quite frugal. They both would pick up a penny and SAVE it! Anyway, they RARELY gave to charity because they had little to spare. But every year when the Salvation Army bell-ringers showed up, my dad could never pass one without dropping $5 (if he had it) in the pot. When asked why he only gave to them, he replied the SA was the only group in Europe that gave extra food, clothing, blankets, coffee, packages to front-line infantry, and after the war to displaced persons during the occupation. And they never asked for a cent. Red Cross sometimes would provide relief, but mostly for photo ops when the brass was around. The typical cold, muddy, foot soldier in his company hoped for the SA. He gave as much as he could afford until his dying day.

      Children of the Depression have some very interesting stories to tell. We need to listen to and record these stories as these people are being taken from us daily. One day, we will have our own stories to tell. Will anyone care listen?

  5. Susan says:

    My mother from North River always talked about milk-toast and salt pork with milk gravy. Fortunately, her grandfather farmed until his death in 1936 and her mother and aunt always kept gardens and “put up” vegetables for the winter. Her mother was able to sew their clothes and make do with what they had. Her father hunted and the delicacy was venison. Not sure whether he hunted for anything else. It must have been very hard, especially in the winter. Would love to know more about the food situation in the late thirties and early 40’s and the rationing during the war.

  6. Charlie Stehlin says:

    We all have stories to tell Boris and I appreciate yours also. So you’ve heard firsthand accounts of the Depression also. That generation is about gone, just a handful of them left. Hand-shoveling snow! Now we pour chemical liquids over it to be rid of it…..in some cases anyway, or spread salt, versus shoveling. Your dad and my dad were both in the service the same years apparently. We’re getting up there in years aren’t we? We should all be taught to journal, to write, to share…so that maybe generations ahead can get something out of it, to improve their intelligence.

    Outhouses! I find them, and smokehouses, to be interesting features over the landscape, I look for them on my road trips, take photos of them. They’re still out there which is nice because I like to be reminded of the past, and whenever I see them I stop and take photos and now and again get a peep inside if perchance I coincide with an owner. My brother has a 5-seater on his property down in Ulster County. I’ve seen 3-seaters in Schoharie County; Washington County has its share of both outhouses and smokehouses….. Vermont is loaded with them it seems. The old history is still here, some of it, relics, and it is interesting for sure!

    Your parent’s frugal! Yep! That was my dad. He would tell me stories about how frugal his mother was, she never wasted anything, not food nor clothing. My dad talked about a suit that was passed down from one child to the next back in the day so as not to have to buy another one…and it worked! Pop always bent down to pick up a penny when he saw one, and he was always tight with money, except when it came to charity, especially the Salvation Army, as I have noted above. It’s comical now when thinking about how tight he was. He got that from growing up during the Depression. This generation could use a good lesson or two about how things could always be worse. This pandemic is a good learning experience for many evidently…….just look at the long lines for food!

    “We need to listen to and record these stories as these people are being taken from us daily. One day, we will have our own stories to tell. Will anyone care listen?”

    > That’s what it’s all about Boreas… bending an ear, observing, taking notes. We can never get it all but something is better than nothing. I am so grateful my dad left some writings behind, and especially his dad who wrote some very good stories about his experiences, dating back to as early as the nineteen-teens. My grandfather, in his notes, shared a story about German hunters who used to walk past his father’s butcher shop in Brooklyn with rifles slung over their shoulders in the early 1900’s. Just imagine! Things sure do change!

    And then there’s the stories from the mid to late 1700’s & early to mid 1800’s that thoughtful people recorded, upstate New York stories, New York City, which is some of the most fascinating history I must say. The Adirondack history is fascinating, but all of the other New York history too. It was all wilderness at one time…….. I can go on! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Susan says: “Would love to know more about the food situation in the late thirties and early 40’s and the rationing during the war.”

    > Somewhere in my heap I have a ration book that my dad gave me some years ago. It is a small booklet of little stamps that the Government handed out to the citizenry back during the war in the 40’s, the stamps for being able to obtain food in those hardship days. From what I get reading my grandfather’s letters and hearing my dad’s stories over the years, it seems to me that as tough as things were back then there was a lot of happiness going around at the same time….at least within my family anyway, and with all of the people associated with them. That was probably due to them not having as much to begin with, and appreciating every little thing. Nowadays we moan & groan about the minutest of things which proves how spoiled we have become, or how too convenient things have been for us!

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