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Improving Food and Nutrition Security During COVID-19, the Economic Recovery, and Beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significantly adverse impact on food and nutrition security, though this was mitigated by increased support for federal food and nutrition programs. Poverty increased as businesses closed and families experienced job losses. Access, availability, and affordability of nutritious foods has been challenging given consumer financial constraints and supply chain disruptions. Food insecurity is defined as being uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food because of insufficient money or resources.1 Specific estimates of food insecurity during COVID-19 vary based on multiple factors, including timing, population surveyed, and methodology, and range from 8% to 38%.2, 3, 4 USDA reported that food insecurity affected 10.5% of U.S. households in 2020, noting the prevalence of food insecurity did not change from 2019.5 It is likely that the benefit increases and flexibilities provided by the COVID-19 recovery legislation helped to prevent the increase in overall food insecurity. Food insecurity is historically more common among certain population groups, including seniors, people who have low incomes, and Black, Latinx, and Native American communities6,7, 8,10 USDA’s 2020 data showed that households with Black individuals and households with children did experience significant increases in food insecurity during the pandemic even as overall food insecurity stayed the same.10

While there is no official U.S. government definition of nutrition security, the term has been used to mean “consistent access, availability, and affordability of foods and beverages that promote well-being and prevent (and if needed, treat) disease.”11 Nutrition security is concerned with diet quality in addition to food access. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having obesity and other diet-related conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes, increases the risk of severe
illness from COVID-19 and may triple the risk of hospitalization.12, 13 A recent study concluded that 63.5% of the 906,849 COVID-19 hospitalizations as of November 18, 2020 could be attributed to diabetes, obesity, hypertension, or heart failure, meaning the hospitalizations could have been prevented if the individuals did not have these conditions.14 Understanding how health status can affect conditions like COVID-19
can drive public health strategies to improve nutrition, and ultimately, health. Congressional and administrative actions have been pivotal in addressing food and nutrition insecurity caused by COVID-19. In 2020-2021, Congress passed five major pieces of legislation, appropriating about $35 billion in specific funding, plus additional spending as might be necessary, for programs that are key to addressing food access challenges related to COVID-19.a Congress also allowed for waivers and flexibilities in implementing the federal nutrition programs. 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.

This brief is the first in a series of three by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Food and Nutrition Security Task Force and provides recommendations for bipartisan, consensus-based recommendations for improving food and nutrition security during COVID-19 and the economic recovery. Implementation of the policy recommendations in this brief can also support food and nutrition security during future public health emergencies, economic downturns, and recessions. Federal nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the school meals programs are vital to preventing and reducing food and nutrition insecurity. The 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. Improvements to the programs, such as flexibilities and waivers, can help to ensure the programs better meet the needs of individuals and families during such emergencies. Strengthening the charitable food sector and emergency food assistance and forming key partnerships between the public and private sectors are also key. These factors should be taken into consideration when designing policies to promote food access, nutrition and health equity.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Food and Nutrition Security Task Force makes the following nine high-level policy recommendations to improve food and nutrition security in response to COVID-19 and the economic recovery:

  • Develop a standardized federal definition for “nutrition security” in consultation and collaboration with stakeholder groups
  • Elevate policy issues related to food and nutrition security by hosting a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, Hunger, and Health in early 2022.
  • Extend through the public health emergency or beyond the COVID-19-related nutrition program flexibilities and waivers that provide access to key federal food and nutrition assistance programs. Ensure federal agencies have the authority to grant needed waivers and flexibilities during times of future economic downturns, recessions, and public health emergencies.
  • Support an increase in accessibility, availability, and intake of fruits and vegetables in all forms in federal feeding programs, such as SNAP, WIC, P-EBT, Summer EBT, and USDA Emergency Food Distribution programs, to improve nutrition security.
  • Ensure the necessary technology infrastructure to modernize service delivery and provide equitable access to federal nutrition programs and program components.
  • Ensure all individuals, especially those who are at disproportionate risk of food and nutrition insecurity, have equal access to affordable nutritious foods to promote health. Examine and address the social determinants of health and their impact on food and nutrition security during COVID-19.
  • Provide funding for federal research and programs that address food and nutrition security impacted by COVID-19 and to prevent adverse outcomes during future public health emergencies.
  • Given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, older Americans, and people with obesity and diet-related chronic conditions, enact and implement programs targeting these populations that address the linkages between health care and the community and social determinants of health.
  • Maintain program flexibilities, increase investments in emergency food assistance, and support and incentivize the distribution of foods to families with a focus on increased access to nutritious foods and improved dietary quality.

The task force acknowledges that recommendations included in this report could add to federal spending beyond current law and provides several considerations for offsets. However, the task force does not endorse any potential pay-fors specifically.

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