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Basic Needs + COVID-19
In the midst of this Coronavirus crisis, people are hurting. While there is no hierarchy of oppression and grief, the spread of COVID-19 has acted as a magnifying glass, shining a light on pre-existing inequities in our communities - and further exacerbating them.
We’ve watched as families fought to stay in their homes amid fears of eviction after job loss. We’ve seen parents forced to balance full-time jobs and caring for children as schools across the nation shuttered for the remainder of the school year. We’ve listened as laid off employees fear for their health, facing a growing pandemic without health insurance. Parents, reliant upon WIC assistance to provide healthy foods for their children, are continually finding shelves emptied of WIC-approved foods like formula, milk, cheese, eggs, and peanut butter.
Economic inequities on their own are hard enough to navigate, but coupled with a pandemic, they are seemingly insurmountable. Basic needs for health and safety are unmet and underlined in red ink. Arguably the most important vital condition for physical and mental health, it’s imperative that we find ways to reverse the trend and support our most vulnerable.
From Spotlights to Solutions
Despite all of the messy implementation and botched workarounds, there is reason for hope. When this story was first drafted, there was an ongoing critical situation in which those with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits had to navigate a tangle of disconnected rules and regulations at the state and federal levels. In a time where the grocery store has been deemed a hotbed of potential communicable disease, our most vulnerable populations were mostly unable to practice social distancing and utilize grocery pick up or delivery options because SNAP regulations did not allow for delivery charges or prepaying purchases for pickup.
To spotlight this issue, a published article from Civil Eats explored the sense of urgency behind an online purchasing pilot and what it would mean for food insecurity when more states allow SNAP recipients to buy food online. They underscored that “COVID-19 demonstrates an obvious need for adaptation in the American food system.”
The calls to address these gaps in basic health and safety needs grew in intensity with six U.S. Senators - including two former democratic presidential candidates - delivering a passionate plea to the CEOs of Walmart and Amazon. The senators urged the billion dollar companies to forego minimum order requirements and delivery fees for those using SNAP EBT payments, stating that the measure would give “low-income families [...] the ability to purchase groceries without the burden of spending more than a family can afford in order to limit community exposure to the novel coronavirus.”
The response from the federal government was slow, though not entirely non-existent. Though programs are federally funded, much of the implementation and governance is done at the state level. The Food and Nutrition Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued waivers for the SNAP and WIC programs, allowing for flexibility in administration of benefits within each state.
Actions for an Equitable Future
Jennifer Bean, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the University of Missouri, explains that highlighting inequities during this pandemic, especially around food, is how real change begins.
“We’re in the midst of the stages of change,” Bean said. “This very situation may move people from the precontemplation stage, where they don’t realize the current structure is problematic, and move them into taking action. We can cultivate the political will to make change.”
Some areas where communities are seeing the political will to make change are in the distribution of forthcoming emergency funds allocated under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The CARES Act included $5 Billion in funding for the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) to provide relief for American people, businesses and communities experiencing the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19.
Communities, like those found in Columbia, Missouri, are meeting virtually with local officials to inform efforts to allocate relief funds. In other communities across the country, allocation activities identified have included increases to rent and mortgage assistance, assistance to small businesses, as well as immediate public service needs to address the COVID-19 crisis such as quarantine facilities, food, shelter, and other health services.
As one resident participating in the virtual sessions explained, there is light to be found during this moment of upheaval.
“Isolation is going to bring us closer together in the long-run. Everyone is impacted, but out of this, we’re going to get a better sense of flexibility and what it means to be working toward the common good rather than the bottom line.”
Discussion: What common good efforts have you seen in your community response to COVID-19? Use the comment option at the bottom of this page, so we can continue to learn from each other in this trying time.
This article was written by Andrea Waner, MPA. Andrea is a social equity and human rights policy educator located in Columbia, Missouri and a contributing writer for Community Commons.