How The COVID-19 Pandemic Exposes America’s Discriminatory Health And Food Provision Systems
Food security is often treated as a niche issue, an individual concern or a matter for charity.
April 06, 2020 at 5:49 pm
The COVID-19 outbreak in the United States has shone a spotlight on America’s economic inequalities, and a fragile social safety net that will leave vulnerable communities to bear the economic brunt of the crisis. An underreported issue is the disproportionate effect the pandemic will have on people of color and the poor in America. This will be the case in terms of infection and deaths, job losses, crashing incomes and food oppression.
While the virus infects people regardless of wealth, the poor will be most affected due to longstanding segregation by income and race, reduced economic mobility and the high cost of medical care. Low-income communities are more likely to be exposed to the virus, have higher mortality rates and suffer economically. In times of economic crisis, these vulnerabilities will be more pronounced for groups marginalized due to race, gender and/or immigration status. U.S. policymakers must consider these underlying inequalities as they respond urgently to the mounting challenges of the pandemic.
Human Rights Watch in a March 19 article underscored that “in the U.S., economic inequality is closely linked to a racial divide in income and wealth. Incomes and wealth are lower, and poverty is most acute among African- Americans and Hispanics. About 21% of African-American people and 18% of Hispanic people live under the poverty line, compared with 8% of white people.” Research has shown that low income is associated with higher rates of chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, factors that increase vulnerability to COVID-19.
As the number of confirmed infections continues to increase daily, it’s becoming clear that the pandemic has changed America’s job market almost overnight, with potentially catastrophic effects on the economy and job security. Although it is too early to tell the extent of the damage, we already know this unprecedented health crisis will have long-lasting, game-changing ramifications. While a few sectors, companies and workers may benefit, numerous industries are already being severely harmed. People in these areas are losing their jobs and are likely to have extreme difficulty finding new ones.
Business owners are being hit very hard by COVID-19, and the challenges faced by business owners of color can be even more acute. In general, communities of color typically have less to capital markets than their white counterparts. This dynamic may be exacerbated by COVID-19, and limit the financial options available to minority business owners. For some small business owners, the pandemic has meant shutting down because of local restrictions, or losing customers who are afraid of going about their normal routines. Businesses that are faltering or need to close will lay off or let go their workers, creating a ripple effect in communities. As household incomes drop, individuals’ ability to obtain health care, or even to buy enough healthy food, will diminish or disappear. While it’s unclear how many jobs will be lost because of the outbreak, many who have already lost their jobs or could lose them soon include people in the service industry or other positions that are disproportionately filled by people of color.
Although people are being urged to work from home, for many people of color this isn’t an option. “You can’t really work from home if you’re waiting tables, cooking, taking care of folks as a home aide, or [one of] the health care workers who are in the hospitals right now,’’ says Danyelle Solomon, Vice President of Race and Ethnicity Policy at the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the co-author of a report released earlier in March on what impact the pandemic will have on the racial wealth gap. According to the CAP report, only 16% of Hispanic workers and 20% of African American workers are able to work from home, compared with 30% of white workers. The report also found that African Americans, Asians and Hispanics are overrepresented in the typically low-paid jobs in the restaurant and hotel fields. Nearly 14% of workers in the accommodation and food services fields are African American and 27% are Hispanic, according to the US Bureau of Labor statistics.
Solomon points out that these jobs typically don’t provide comprehensive health care and other benefits, such as paid sick leave. “People of color were not sitting in the best economic situation to begin with, and this pandemic is only going to exacerbate that problem,’’ she says. These workers don’t have the capacity to withstand “economic shocks” such as job loss. Shaomeng Jia, an economics professor at Alabama State University underscores that some people of color — whose families and communities were particularly harmed during the 2008 global financial crisis — still haven’t recovered from that; these folks are “already not doing so great in a good day, let alone in a rainy day.’’
Closing schools is another factor that brings largely unseen but major consequences. While keeping kids at home may not seem like a big deal to families with adequate incomes, many children in low-income families rely on free or very inexpensive breakfasts and lunches to get enough nutrition each day. An unintended consequence of COVID-19 are higher levels of unattended kids at home. Parents who are forced to physically go into work, but can’t afford childcare, will be left with limited options. And while virtual learning is an excellent alternative for many, there are still millions of households across America that don’t have access to high-speed Internet, so virtual learning isn’t an option for their children. The medium and long-term effects of the disruption to education remain to be seen but will be more pronounced for those already struggling to ensure their children complete school.
Food insecurity and food oppression in low-income communities will intensify as a result of COVID-19 and the government’s current action plan. Prior to the pandemic, ~11% of U.S. households were considered “food insecure,” meaning they didn’t consistently have access to enough food. This proportion inevitably will increase due to job losses.
It is deeply concerning that in spite of the virus, the U.S. government has confirmed its plans to change the eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the primary federal food safety net program, potentially depriving hundreds of thousands of people of benefits starting April 1. SNAP and other food assistance programs should be receiving expanded funds to reach more people during this time of crisis.
In addition to affordability concerns, COVID-19 creates new food access challenges for those under quarantine and who have become ill. This is on top of the ongoing struggles of those who live in areas without nearby grocery stores, people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, older adults living alone and those reliant on public transit. Where there are good support networks, friends, families, neighbors and local volunteers will pitch in to bring groceries. But that’s not enough, nor are such networks in place for all vulnerable individuals.
Food security is often treated as a niche issue, an individual concern or a matter for charity. There are businesses that are well-positioned to partner with governments and health plans to address the food aspect of the social determinants of health. For example, Everytable in Los Angeles, is well-positioned and offers an excellent innovative model that governments and health plans should partner with to increase access to healthy food options during this unprecedented time and afterward.
Founder Sam Polk built Everytable on the belief that every life is equally important. The organization’s mission is to bring healthy, affordable food to every table in the country, with no one left out. “Everytable’s business model drastically reduces the costs of the standard restaurant model.
In a March 25 press release for United Way LA, the article stated that “With support from Dignity Health, United Way of Greater Los Angeles partnered with the City of Los Angeles and Everytable to provide 9,000 meals for unhoused residents and those accessing the 9 temporary shelter sites that opened this past weekend as part of the City of Los Angeles COVID-19 response."
In cities around the world, work has stopped, bills have not. And no end is in sight. The weeks of layoffs and lockdowns in America have made clear that poor and working-class people, a high percentage of whom are persons of color, will bear a disproportionate share of the pain from the coronavirus pandemic. As the pandemic unfolds, we won’t be able to mitigate many of its worst consequences in time. Mass unemployment will adversely affect people of color in blue-collar jobs, in far greater proportions than for most of the rest of the population. In lower-income families, this will dramatically increase the number of folks who can’t get access to a fresh meal. Undernourished and malnourished bodies will, in turn, be more susceptible to infection and thereby to transmission.
In the midst of this economic and human calamity, the government has an opportunity to initiate a structural redesign of the fresh-food distribution system. Since more funds will inevitably need to be released, why not spend those funds in better, smarter ways that won’t just deal with the current crisis but will also open up the prospect of reducing or eliminating food insecurity and oppression in America? Simply throwing money at emergency food provision without attention to its nutritional quality would be a travesty, played out later in the form of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, kidney failure and other illnesses that are very costly in terms of funds and, more importantly, human suffering. America must not turn a blind eye to its marginalized, underprivileged citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Its future well-being as a nation will hinge upon how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable as we collectively navigate through the greatest global and national upheaval of our lifetimes.