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Flexibility, Resources Key Takeaways in Addressing Food Insecurity During COVID-19 and in the Future

Washington, DC – Lack of access to affordable, nutritious foods and poor diet quality can have profound impacts on health outcomes, health care costs, children’s ability to learn and grow, and overall economic growth and prosperity. While temporary flexibilities and benefit increases for school meals and programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have been enacted to address food and nutrition security challenges caused by the pandemic, without short and long-term federal action they will do little to strengthen our country’s ability to address future public health crises and economic downturns.

The ways in which COVID-19 exacerbated health disparities and increased rates of food insecurity and the increased risk for adverse COVID-19 outcomes for people with diet-related chronic conditions, such as obesity, was the backdrop for the formation of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Food and Nutrition Security Task Force in May 2021 and the impetus behind its first report: Improving Food and Nutrition Security During COVID-19, the Economic Recovery, and Beyond, released today.

The task force is comprised of 18 distinguished public and private sector leaders, including co-chairs: Dan Glickman, former secretary of agriculture, senior fellow, BPC; Ann M. Veneman, former secretary of agriculture; José Andrés, founder, World Central Kitchen; and Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO, FMI – The Food Industry Association.

“While we’re encouraged that recent data out of the USDA found that overall food insecurity, or lack of resources to afford sufficient food, did not increase during the pandemic, they did find increases in food insecurity in households with children and Black non-Hispanic households,” said Bill Hoagland, BPC senior vice president. “This gap has implications for potentially widening racial disparities and echoes the recommendations of our task force that policy changes are needed to increase equity in food and nutrition security.”

Congressional and administrative actions have been pivotal during times of hardship and need in addressing food and nutrition security, particularly among vulnerable populations, like children, seniors, and people with low incomes. In response to COVID-19, Congress appropriated about $35 billion in specific funding and additional sums as may be necessary for programs addressing food access challenges in 2020 and 2021. The report finds, “While these federal actions were decisive in stemming what could have been much higher rates of food insecurity, further investment and policy changes are needed.”

While there is no official U.S. government definition of nutrition security, it typically means “consistent access, availability, and affordability of foods and beverages that promote well-being and prevent (and if needed, treat) disease.” Diet quality and food access have implications for obesity and other diet-related conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes. Poor diet quality can increase the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and may triple the risk of hospitalization.

“The task force not only focused on access to food, but how healthy and nutritious food can improve the diets of recipients of federal feeding programs specifically, and the population at large, said Sec. Veneman. “We’re eager to focus on both elements of insecurity to better the lives of American citizens.”

The task force recommends nine short-and long-term federal policy changes to increase food and nutrition security:

  • Develop a standardized federal definition for “nutrition security.”
  • Host a White House conference on food, nutrition, hunger, and health in early 2022.
  • Extend nutrition program flexibilities and waivers that provide access to key federal food and nutrition assistance programs and make sure federal agencies can grant needed waivers and flexibilities during future economic downturns, recessions, and public health emergencies.
  • Support increases in accessibility, availability, and intake of fruits and vegetables in all forms in federal feeding programs.
  • Update the necessary technology infrastructure to modernize service delivery and provide equitable access to federal nutrition programs.
  • Ensure all individuals, especially those who are at disproportionate risk of food insecurity, have equal access to affordable nutritious foods. Examine and address the social determinants of health and their impact on food and nutrition security during COVID-19.
  • Provide funding for additional federal research to better understand adverse outcomes of food insecurity to better inform future public health emergencies.
  • Enact and implement programs targeting underserved and vulnerable populations to address the links among health care, the community, and social determinants of health.
  • Maintain program flexibilities, increase investments in emergency food assistance, and incentivize food distribution to families with a focus on increased access to nutritious foods and improved dietary quality.

“SNAP, WIC, and school meal programs are among our nation’s most important, proven, and cost-effective public interventions, and they should be bolstered if our nation is to build on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 economic and public health crisis,” said Sec. Glickman. “We all learned many hard lessons during the pandemic; giving these programs more resources and flexibilities during public health challenges will ensure they can better meet the needs of individuals and families during future emergencies.”

“FMI and our member companies are committed to supporting the health and well-being of our nation by providing affordable and nutritious foods to consumers and their families,” said Sarasin. “Recent FMI Foundation research found that 86% of Americans are having in-person family meals as frequently or even more often than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Of those, 70% reported the benefit of being more connected to their families. Reducing food insecurity is a crucial step in ensuring all Americans can enjoy more meals with their families, connecting to help build a healthier, stronger nation. We look forward to discussing with policymakers the recommendations put forth by the Food and Nutrition Security Task Force to enhance food and nutrition security for millions of Americans.”

“There is no time to waste,” said Andrés. “Congress and the administration need to act now to implement our task force’s recommendations. We cannot afford partisanship when it comes to food, nutrition, and hunger. In my work around the country and the world, I’ve learned we must do more than just serving meals in the aftermath of crisis—we must address the underlying inequities that leave communities vulnerable in the first place. We must forge the partnerships that can empower families during normal times. Food and nutrition security should be available to all Americans, always.”

The other members of the bipartisan Food and Nutrition Security Task Force are:

  • Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO, Feeding America
  • Rochelle Davis, President and CEO, Healthy Schools Campaign
  • Zippy Duval, President, American Farm Bureau Federation
  • Ihuoma U. Eneli, M.D., M.S., FAAP, Director, Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition, Nationwide Children’s Hospital
  • Rev. Douglas Greenaway, MDiv, President and CEO, National WIC Association
  • J. Nadine Garcia, M.D., MSCE, President and CEO, Trust for America’s Health
  • Luis Guardia, President, Food Research & Action Center
  • Kristina Herrmann, Director, Underserved Populations, Amazon
  • Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, Advisor and Board Member, Mission Readiness
  • Navina Khanna, Co-Founder and Executive Director, HEAL Food Alliance
  • Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., Dr.PH, Dean, Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Tufts University
  • Robert Paarlberg, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Wellesley College, Associate, Sustainability Science Program, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Weatherhead Center
  • Pam Schwartz, MPH, Executive Director, Community Health, Kaiser Permanente
  • Tom Stenzel, President and CEO, United Fresh Produce Association

This brief is the first in a series of three by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Food and Nutrition Security Task Force.

Read the report.