Let Them Eat Cake: Insufficient Government Responses to Food Insecurity During COVID-19

Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Rachel Harp, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. Introduction

Food is a fundamental need that often goes unmet during times of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception: food insecurity rates have skyrocketed and continue to rise.[1] Before the pandemic, food insecurity impacted approximately 35 million people in the U.S.–the lowest food insecurity rate since the 2008 financial crisis.[2] Near the end of 2020, more than 54 million people in the U.S. were food insecure.[3] Unsurprisingly, both food insecurity and COVID-19 have disproportionate impacts on communities of color.[4]

This article explores the emergency procedures addressing pandemic poverty and food insecurity implemented by Congress and the Trump Administration last year and why these procedures have been insufficient. The article will also discuss the role of food banks in filling gaps left by government assistance and the lack of sustainable food charities. This article will conclude with a discussion of President Biden’s “American Rescue Plan,” parts of which have already been implemented.[5]

II. 2020 Emergency Food Relief and Stimulus Checks

Reliable access to healthy food is key to surviving in normal times, but a raging health disaster like COVID-19 makes food security even more imperative.[6] Food insecurity is associated with several chronic illnesses that place individuals at higher risk of experiencing COVID-19 with severe complications.[7] There are a variety of systems that perpetuate food insecurity, but the insufficient federal response and varying state-by-state approaches to coronavirus last year have exacerbated food insecurity that already existed and created more food insecure households.[8]

Temporary emergency funding created by Congress and approved by former President Trump were minimal. The stimulus checks sent last year were likely not enough for families to pay for household needs and food.[9] States implemented Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer (“P-EBT”) programs for school children who were on free and reduced lunch, but there were numerous distribution and administrative issues with P-EBT cards.[10]

The federal government also increased Supplemental Food and Nutrition Program (“SNAP,” also known as “food stamps”) allotments by 15% per household on a temporary basis that is extended each month.[11] The Trump Administration did not provide this increase to households receiving the maximum SNAP allotments.[12] SNAP alone often does not provide enough for families to survive each month, and unemployment benefits were an administrative nightmare to dispense in most states, leaving families in impossible financial situations.[13] There are also significant groups of people who qualify for SNAP and other government assistance but do not apply. For example, people who were food secure before the pandemic might not apply because of the stigma associated with SNAP and government assistance.[14] Legal immigrants might also not apply for SNAP even if they qualify due to fear of negative implications for their future citizenship statuses.[15]

III. The Role of Food Banks in the Pandemic and Poverty Promotion

Due to the insufficiency of federal programs in addressing food insecurity (both pre-pandemic and throughout), food banks and similar charities are left with the moral responsibility of feeding the nation.[16] Food banks operate on a supply and demand business model which perpetuates food insecurity.[17] Food banks receive leftover cans of off-brand foods that children in food secure households no longer want and take rotting produce from grocery chains to distribute.[18] Beyond the lack of dignity this entails, this system creates long-term problems.

Food banks are the main source of food for many Americans.[19] Unfortunately, food banks do not have healthy, sustainable food options, leaving individuals to live on “junk food,” or empty-calorie foods alone.[20] Food banks also struggle with food shortages during natural disasters and economic hardships, and they do not have many donations outside of the holiday season.[21] This leaves food banks with the unavoidable choice to limit services and food packages for families.[22] Families living on food banks alone certainly do not have enough food to live normal lives, much less combat COVID-19.[23] Individuals using both SNAP and food banks experience similar food shortages and impossible decisions about where to allocate their limited resources.

IV. The Potential Impact of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan[24]

President Biden’s American Rescue Plan seems more hopeful than the previous administration’s approach to coronavirus and its impacts, though it still has major downfalls. President Biden will issue executive orders to expand SNAP in similar ways, including a 15-20% benefit increase for families of four and extending this to households already receiving the maximum benefit.[25] This executive order will also provide $100 every two months to families of children who received free meals at school.[26] President Biden also has plans to release federal guidance on safely opening schools.[27] Further, the Biden Administration has announced upcoming stimulus checks and has already extended the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.[28]

The effectiveness of SNAP expansion and stimulus checks at addressing food insecurity sweeping the U.S. is likely to be minimal. As previously discussed, SNAP allotments typically are not enough for families, leaving charities to cover the gaps.[29] Though an increase in monthly benefits would certainly help, it is unlikely to be sufficient to cover families in crisis. The groups of people who qualify for SNAP and choose not to apply are also left without recourse.

Children relying on school meals might fare better in 2021 than under the previous administration. Though the $100 every two months will have nearly negligent impact (especially in households with multiple children), the uniform federal guidance to school openings and procedures will provide local school districts the opportunity to reopen safely and begin providing much-needed meals to children on free and reduced lunch.[30]

The stimulus checks of $1,400 per person will likely have a similar impact as the $1,200 checks from last year.[31] Even combined with the $600 stimulus checks promised, they are unlikely to be enough for families struggling to make payments on mortgages, rent, utilities, and food.[32] Food insecure families will still be left relying on food banks and local charities, many of which are not able to accommodate the vast need. Houston Food Bank, the largest food distribution center in the U.S., experienced a 93% increase in the number of households served each week from March through December of 2020.[33] Not only are food banks struggling to accommodate needs, but they must also change or enhance safety protocols for food distribution, their employees and volunteers, and those they service.

Included in the American Rescue Plan is an effort to combat COVID-19 more aggressively than former President Trump, including mask mandates, efficient vaccine rollout, involvement with the World Health Organization (“WHO”), and other endeavors.[34] The stemming of the pandemic will have an indirect impact on combatting food insecurity, though food insecurity and economic issues from the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting.

V. Conclusion

Food insecurity is systemic and long-term. The number one indicator for poverty in the United States is medical bills.[35] Medicare for All is one way the Biden Administration could begin to address systemic issues in the U.S., like healthcare access and food insecurity. President Biden’s executive orders have already implemented positive changes, but the American Rescue Plan and other Biden Administration policies might still be insufficient at addressing the food needs of individuals across the United States. For now, food banks are left covering the gaps left by federal and state governments, as they have done for decades.[36]


[1] The federal government defines food insecurity as “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources.” Food Insecurity, HealthyPeople 2020 (Oct. 8, 2020), https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/social-determinants-health/interventions-resources/food-insecurity; Bridget Balch, 54 million people in America face food insecurity during the pandemic. It could have dire consequences for their health, American Association of Medical Colleges (Oct. 15, 2020), https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/54-million-people-america-face-food-insecurity-during-pandemic-it-could-have-dire-consequences-their.

[2] Bridget Balch, 54 million people in America face food insecurity during the pandemic. It could have dire consequences for their health, American Association of Medical Colleges (Oct. 15, 2020), https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/54-million-people-america-face-food-insecurity-during-pandemic-it-could-have-dire-consequences-their.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] See generally, President-elect Biden Announces American Rescue Plan, https://buildbackbetter.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/COVID_Relief-Package-Fact-Sheet.pdf. See also Jim Tankersley and Alan Rappeport, Biden Signs Orders to Expand Food Stamps and Raise Wages, but Says Economy Needs More Help, N.Y. Times (Jan. 22, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/22/business/biden-food-stamps-stimulus-checks.html.

[6] Bridget Balch, 54 million people in America face food insecurity during the pandemic. It could have dire consequences for their health, American Association of Medical Colleges (Oct. 15, 2020), https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/54-million-people-america-face-food-insecurity-during-pandemic-it-could-have-dire-consequences-their.

[7] Id.

[8] Megan Leonhardt, Covid-19 pandemic is the first time 40% of Americans have experienced food insecurity, CNBC (Nov. 19, 2020, 9:00 AM), https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/19/covid-pandemic-first-time-many-americans-experienced-food-insecurity.html.

[9] See Daniel Perez-Lopez and Charles Adam Bee, Majority Who Received Stimulus Payments Spending Most of It on Household Expenses, U.S. Census Bureau (June 24, 2020), https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/06/how-are-americans-using-their-stimulus-payments.html. See also How Did Americans Spend Their Stimulus Checks And How Did It Affect The Economy?, Peter G. Peterson Found. (Oct. 9, 2020), https://www.pgpf.org/blog/2020/10/how-did-americans-spend-their-stimulus-checks-and-how-did-it-affect-the-economy.

[10] Stacy Dean et al., Lessons From Early Implementation of Pandemic- EBT, Ctr. on Budget and Policy Priorities (Oct. 30, 2020), https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/lessons-from-early-implementation-of-pandemic-ebt.

[11] Press Release, USDA, Biden Administration Expands P-EBT to Benefit Millions of Low-Income and Food Insecure Children During Pandemic (Jan. 22, 2021), https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2021/01/22/biden-administration-expands-p-ebt-benefit-millions-low-income-and.

[12] Jim Tankersley and Alan Rappeport, Biden Signs Orders to Expand Food Stamps and Raise Wages, but Says Economy Needs More Help, N.Y. Times (Jan. 22, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/22/business/biden-food-stamps-stimulus-checks.html.

[13] Press Release, USDA, Biden Administration Expands P-EBT to Benefit Millions of Low-Income and Food Insecure Children During Pandemic (Jan. 22, 2021), https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2021/01/22/biden-administration-expands-p-ebt-benefit-millions-low-income-and (“USDA Says SNAP Benefits Are Inadequate for Most Participants…”).

[14] Megan Leonhardt, Covid-19 pandemic is the first time 40% of Americans have experienced food insecurity, CNBC (Nov. 19, 2020, 9:00 AM), https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/19/covid-pandemic-first-time-many-americans-experienced-food-insecurity.html.

[15] Anna Gorman and Harriet Rowan, Why Millions of Californians Eligible For Food Stamps Don’t Get Them, Nat’l Pub. Radio (NPR) (May 1, 2018, 2:49 PM), https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/05/01/606422692/why-millions-of-californians-eligible-for-food-stamps-dont-get-them.

[16] Mark Winne, Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty 21-49, 69-81 (2009).

[17] Id. at 75-78.

[18] Id. at 69-81.

[19] Megan Leonhardt, Covid-19 pandemic is the first time 40% of Americans have experienced food insecurity, CNBC (Nov. 19, 2020, 9:00 AM), https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/19/covid-pandemic-first-time-many-americans-experienced-food-insecurity.html.

[20] Bridget Balch, 54 million people in America face food insecurity during the pandemic. It could have dire consequences for their health, American Association of Medical Colleges (Oct. 15, 2020), https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/54-million-people-america-face-food-insecurity-during-pandemic-it-could-have-dire-consequences-their.

[21] Megan Leonhardt, Covid-19 pandemic is the first time 40% of Americans have experienced food insecurity, CNBC (Nov. 19, 2020, 9:00 AM), https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/19/covid-pandemic-first-time-many-americans-experienced-food-insecurity.html. See also, Food Security in the U.S.: Key Statistics and Graphics, USDA (Sept. 9, 2020), https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx#trends.

[22] Megan Leonhardt, Covid-19 pandemic is the first time 40% of Americans have experienced food insecurity, CNBC (Nov. 19, 2020, 9:00 AM), https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/19/covid-pandemic-first-time-many-americans-experienced-food-insecurity.html.

[23] Bridget Balch, 54 million people in America face food insecurity during the pandemic. It could have dire consequences for their health, American Association of Medical Colleges (Oct. 15, 2020), https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/54-million-people-america-face-food-insecurity-during-pandemic-it-could-have-dire-consequences-their.

[24] President-elect Biden Announces American Rescue Plan, https://buildbackbetter.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/COVID_Relief-Package-Fact-Sheet.pdf.

[25] Jim Tankersley and Alan Rappeport, Biden Signs Orders to Expand Food Stamps and Raise Wages, but Says Economy Needs More Help, N.Y. Times (Jan. 22, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/22/business/biden-food-stamps-stimulus-checks.html.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] See e.g., Press Release, USDA, Biden Administration Expands P-EBT to Benefit Millions of Low-Income and Food Insecure Children During Pandemic (Jan. 22, 2021), https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2021/01/22/biden-administration-expands-p-ebt-benefit-millions-low-income-and (“USDA Says SNAP Benefits Are Inadequate for Most Participants…”).

[30] President-elect Biden Announces American Rescue Plan, https://buildbackbetter.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/COVID_Relief-Package-Fact-Sheet.pdf.

[31] Id. See e.g. Daniel Perez-Lopez and Charles Adam Bee, Majority Who Received Stimulus Payments Spending Most of It on Household Expenses, U.S. Census Bureau (June 24, 2020), https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/06/how-are-americans-using-their-stimulus-payments.html. See also How Did Americans Spend Their Stimulus Checks And How Did It Affect The Economy?, Peter G. Peterson Found. (Oct. 9, 2020), https://www.pgpf.org/blog/2020/10/how-did-americans-spend-their-stimulus-checks-and-how-did-it-affect-the-economy.

[32] Daniel Perez-Lopez and Charles Adam Bee, Majority Who Received Stimulus Payments Spending Most of It on Household Expenses, U.S. Census Bureau (June 24, 2020), https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/06/how-are-americans-using-their-stimulus-payments.html.

[33] Houston Food Bank COVID-19 Response (2020), https://www.houstonfoodbank.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/factsheet_covid19_cumulativethruDecember_20210120_FINAL.pdf.

[34] Rachel Siegel, What’s in Biden’s $1.9 trillion emergency coronavirus plan, Wash. Post (Jan. 14, 2021, 5:01 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/01/14/biden-coronavirus-stimulus-plan/.

[35] How Expanded Medicaid Could Improve Food Security (Sept. 27, 2020, 5:21 PM), https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/917554003/how-expanded-medicaid-could-improve-food-security.

[36] Megan Leonhardt, Covid-19 pandemic is the first time 40% of Americans have experienced food insecurity, CNBC (Nov. 19, 2020, 9:00 AM), https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/19/covid-pandemic-first-time-many-americans-experienced-food-insecurity.html; Bridget Balch, 54 million people in America face food insecurity during the pandemic. It could have dire consequences for their health, American Association of Medical Colleges (Oct. 15, 2020), https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/54-million-people-america-face-food-insecurity-during-pandemic-it-could-have-dire-consequences-their; Mark Winne, Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty 21-49, 69-81 (2009).