Survey: Food insecurity on the rise in America’s cities

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By Michelle Diggles, Ph.D.

Rising food insecurity in America’s cities is complicating an already difficult public-health challenge, according to a new poll of mayors from The U.S. Conference of Mayors and Bloomberg Philanthropies. In fact, 93 percent of cities participating in the survey noted that demand at food banks and pantries has sharply increased.

Two-thirds of these mayors report that their city has experienced disruptions to the food-supply chain since the COVID-19 pandemic started. These supply-chain disruptions are, by themselves, a challenge — especially as communities look to protect food-industry workers, minimize food shortages, and avoid price hikes. But today’s food issues are also exacerbated by secondary and tertiary elements of the pandemic: income loss and school closures.

With unemployment rates exceeding those during the Great Depression, it is unsurprising that more than nine in 10 mayors surveyed reported that residents are relying on food banks and pantries more so than they did in pre-COVID-19 times. In fact, mayors who participated in our poll noted that food insecurity has risen among a number of vulnerable groups in their communities, including:

  • Households with children under 18 (74 percent of mayors)
  • Households with single parents (75 percent of mayors)
  • Seniors (80 percent of mayors)
  • Low-income residents (89 percent of mayors)

City leaders are working to increase food options for these groups. In Philadelphia, for example, seniors can reserve meals and pick them up (or ask a family member to do so) through a local nonprofit, the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, or at the Parks and Rec department’s older-adult centers. In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, Mayor Muriel Bowser is providing pre-packaged groceries for families to pick-up, in partnership with Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen.

Solving food challenges among children can be more difficult. While mayors told us that three-quarters of households with children are experiencing food insecurity, school closures stand in the way of traditional solutions. Many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but most schools have closed for the year, leaving those students few options.

Still, cities and schools are finding alternatives. Ninety-three percent of the mayors who participated in the survey said they have made new arrangements to get food to those youth in need. Some of them are using closed schools as distribution centers where students can pick up take-out breakfast and lunch. Honolulu, on the other hand, is delivering meals to students and other vulnerable residents as part of their Malama Meals COVID-19 Community Meal Program, a public-private partnership in Oahu.

While widespread food insecurity in the U.S. is often thought to be a relic of a bygone era, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the cracks in our system. But across the country, mayors and local leaders are rising to meet the moment and care for those most at-risk in their communities.

Michelle Diggles leads research at Bloomberg Cities.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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