Even in this land of plenty, not everyone has enough to eat. And the coronavirus pandemic has only worsened a bad situation.
Before the onset of the public health crisis in March, an estimated 843,000 Virginians — including nearly 234,000 children — were considered food insecure, or lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
An additional 447,000 state residents will experience food insecurity at some point during the next year because of the pandemic, according to Feeding America, a national network of 200 food banks across the U.S. That would represent a jump from nearly 10% to 15% of Virginians who don’t have a steady source of healthy food.
Sadly, that’s a disturbing trend that continues to rise across the United States. Nationally, the number of “food insecure” Americans could climb to an estimated 50 million Americans this year — which includes 17 million children. Making sure Americans have enough healthy food to eat is yet another toll of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that approximately 23.5 million Americans live in so-called food deserts — areas with no grocery stores within one mile in urban regions and within 10 miles in rural communities. People who live in communities where it’s hard to find affordable, fresh food face higher risks for obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
As the newly released Virginia Roadmap to End Hunger states, “Food access is one of the great equity issues of our time.”
The roadmap is an ambitious plan to reduce food insecurity. Produced by Gov. Ralph Northam’s Children’s Cabinet, it outlines aspirational goals to achieve over the next five years. It looks to develop recommendations, programs and partnerships that will, as outlined by Northam’s office:
Expand child nutrition programs;
Increase participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children Program;
Increase nutrition support for seniors;
Expand access to local food for schools and families;
Strengthen connections between food access programs and the health care sector;
Encourage food and agriculture investments in food deserts and marginalized communities;
Amplify public awareness of hunger in Virginia and support information sharing across public and private sectors; and
Support community organizing to combat food insecurity and hunger.
For instance, the roadmap sets a goal of getting an average of 70% of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches to also participate in school breakfast, and achieving a 90% participating rate among people who are eligible for SNAP, or food stamps — especially in rural areas and among seniors. Also, every region would have a local “Hunger Action Coalition” to address the issue in local communities.
Children and seniors particularly are vulnerable. Reliable access to healthy food especially is critical to children and their physical and mental development.
Virginia’s senior population is expected to double by 2030, according to the report. That means “our public safety net and service delivery systems will need to grow and become more responsive to the unique needs of older food insecure Virginians.” Food insecure seniors are more than twice as likely to report being in poor or fair health than those with stable access to nutritious food, the roadmap reports.
“This pandemic has created challenges for the entire food system and added new burdens on thousands of Virginia families,” Northam said in a statement. The roadmap “looks beyond our current struggles and outlines a way forward to end hunger in the commonwealth and ensure equitable access to healthy, affordable food for all Virginians.”
The Northam administration worked with the Virginia Department of Social Services and the Federation of Virginia Food Banks to create the roadmap, holding public meetings to solicit input around the state — including in Richmond.
“In a state as rich in resources as ours, there is simply no reason for food insecurity to exist,” Eddie Oliver, executive director of the federation, said in a statement. We agree. And we applaud the roadmap for laying a course to finding solutions in the fight against hunger.