How COVID-19 Is Revealing
America’s Food Insecurity

Lisa Held. Civil Eats.

There’s a reason why my college’s campus food pantry, Hawks Harvest, is still open. There is a reason why, for the first time, they are including the food pantry in all email updates for student resources. And there is a reason why students experiencing food insecurity are reaching out more than ever to get support. Those of us attending the University of North Carolina — Wilmington, who live just a few miles from North Carolina’s coast, are used to natural disasters like seasonal hurricanes; missing a week’s worth of school and then picking up where we left off. But a global pandemic with no end in sight with ever-increasing numbers of infected cases? Uncharted territory.

With the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19, more people are rushing to grocery stores and grabbing food essentials, clearing out entire supermarkets’ worth of food and supplies as they panic shop for their families and themselves. The result? As jobs and businesses shut down and already poor Americans struggle without paychecks, they are left with even less food and fewer food options.

Food insecure children across the nation who rely on schools to provide their lunches are now dependent on bus driver lunch deliveries, schools opening for a few hours in the afternoon simply to provide food for children that need it most, and businesses and chain restaurants opening their doors to offer kids the free lunches they so desperately need.

Our New Reality


While it is terrifying with the global death toll and infection numbers rising, the coronavirus vividly reveals the cracks in our system and the harsh reality that many Americans live paycheck to paycheck. It’s not just college students or those suffering from housing insecurity.

It is low-income families, K-12 students, the elderly living on fixed incomes, and more. The band-aid has been ripped off, exposing the wound of food insecurity throughout the United States.

Within my own county, school bus drivers are partnering with Child Nutrition Service workers to ensure their jobs are secured, while meeting a pressing need in our community. They are planning to load the buses with breakfast and lunches for distribution (Featherston, 2020). But how long can they continue? How long will this last?

K-12 Food Insecurity

Even before the virus, one in seven households with children were being affected by a lack of access to food, known as food insecurity (No Kid Hungry). Many children rely on School Breakfast programs and the National School Lunch Program to have reliable and somewhat nutritious meals. Over 14 million children benefit from the school breakfast program and 30 million for the National School Lunch Program. The vast majority of children in these programs are from low-income households. The Department of Agriculture is lending a hand by providing waivers which permit K-12 students to access “to-go meals” at designated locations while schools are shut down. For families who don’t have reliable transportation, access to “to-go meals” can be increasingly difficult. Each state must apply for waivers that only apply to locations where summer meals programs are already in place. In addition, many parents stuck at home with children out of school must care for them instead of being at work. Many low-income families usually work jobs with no paid sick leave; they will be deeply affected and even less able to afford food (Hernandez, 2020).

College Student Food Insecurity

As many Americans struggle to feed themselves and their families during the crisis, we can see that the federal government, state officials, and local municipalities are reacting unevenly. In response to increasing cases in the U.S. and globally, universities are shutting down to help prevent the spread of the virus. Some campuses are prorating meal plans or giving refunds, while many others are not, leaving students from low-income households further impoverished. Many other college students are struggling to figure out how to pack up their belongings, move back home, start classes in an online format, and cope with all these challenges — while trying to determine where their next meal is coming from.

© George Walker IV / The Tennessean. Fairview high school student Lexie Statton volunteers giving out food boxes to students and families at Westwood Elementary School in Fairview, Tenn. With extended school closures, school districts and nonprofits like One Generation Away and Graceworks Ministries are providing various food distribution opportunities around the county.

College students are among the working American population who are joining the ranks of the unemployed as a result of the coronavirus. With that comes the next step — filing for unemployment. Massachusetts alone received nearly 20,000 new applicants for unemployment claims just from late March as I was writing (Barrett, 2020). At UNC-Wilmington, the food pantry, Hawks Harvest, is remaining open and serving students who live close to campus and are in desperate need of our services. Typically, we have about 10-15 students every week that come to pick up food. That number now has risen closer to 50.

Surveys often find that marginalized students are the most at risk during unprecedented disasters. North-eastern University recently discovered that approximately 40% of their college students have been experiencing food insecurity over the past 30 days. Nationwide closings of restaurants and retail stores have stopped countless part-time workers from earning paychecks, including much needed campus jobs for students. Affording groceries and paying for rent is now even more difficult. Many universities, including my own, are providing information on local housing and food resources. But, in reality, these short-term solutions for students are simply not enough (Barrett, 2020).

Family Food Insecurity Relief

Cindy Beaty and Shivaughn Shepard hand out meals as part of the Muncie Community Schools food assistance program outside of Central Tuesday Morning.
Photo: Jordan Kartholl/The Star Press).

Many NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) are lending a hand across the nation to aid families with food distribution and access, relief aid, and providing lunches to school children within their communities. The local NGO, Cape Fear Food Council, is responding to COVID-19 food relief efforts with their disaster food plan, composed of a centralized communication system and coordination between food relief organizations in southeastern North Carolina. The main goal is to identify service area gaps, enhance collaboration, avoid duplicate efforts, and maximize resources for people in the community. They also help by reallocating supplies and other resources from those with shortages to those with a surplus. Elsewhere, organizations like One Generation Away — a food distribution non-profit in Tennessee that rescues overflow food from supermarkets — is partnering with Williamson County schools to provide meals to students while schools are shut down. Volunteers bring food directly to participants’ cars as many nonprofits and schools have to get creative to sustain social distancing while providing aid. (Bartlett, 2020). With the pandemic spreading, many food pantries are seeing an influx of new families requesting their services along with the recurring families that now rely on their aid more than ever. In Egg Harbor Township in New Jersey, for example, where hotels are donating 125,000 lbs. of excess food to community food banks, they are taping the sidewalk to space patrons at least six feet apart as they receive their emergency food kits. (Bryan, 2020).

With no way of knowing when the pandemic will end, local municipalities and major cities across the nation are taking increasing precautions. Yet, in the midst of what only seems to be the beginning of a long haul, many are already feeling the deep economic impact of what this virus truly means when it comes to providing food for
their families.

Conclusion: There’s Hope

What COVID-19 is revealing is what some of us already knew — 40 million Americans were food insecure before the pandemic; now the numbers are rapidly rising (11 facts about Hunger in America). The people that were most vulnerable to food insecurity in this country are more vulnerable than ever before. With the economy getting worse and people unable to work, we need to call on our policy makers and legislators to ensure safety and security for our most at-risk populations. Just a few months before COVID-19, President Trump was creating new, restrictive SNAP eligibility requirements that were scheduled to go into effect on April 1st, excluding 700,000 people from the program. The pandemic has at least shown that SNAP is a basic necessity for many Americans. With public pressure, the newly-passed $2 trillion-dollar COVID-19 bill includes extra funding for federal food distribution and blocks any new SNAP requirements. And, most importantly, the Senate’s stimulus bill now includes $16 billion dollars’ worth of SNAP food assistance (Lisa Held, 2020).

How Can You Help?

Use the COVAID mutual aid platform. A student from my high school, Jeffrey Li, recently helped to create an online mutual aid platform that connects volunteers to those in need. It finds your location based on zip code so then volunteers can help get medications and go grocery shopping for those who need a hand and are most at risk. https://www.covaid.co/?fbclid=IwAR3L6DfVqu8zMnTteN_qSQWkMdLIdYVAMFBPXapvrA1McOtRCP5R5F8sjGk      

Donate to local food pantries in your area. Drop off a bag or two of groceries to show your support and aid hungry families in your own community. If you can’t drop off provisions, consider making a donation so that pantries can purchase the most needed supplies for their patrons.

Support the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The WFP is the world’s largest hunger-fighting organization. It works in some of the most difficult places on earth to provide food assistance to people suffering from the effects of man-made conflict, climate-related extreme weather events and other shocks. WFP serves populations that will potentially experience the greatest harm from COVID-19 and that have the least capacity to cope. They are aiding Syrian Refugees that are very at risk given close quarters in refugee camps.https://www.wfpusa.org/articles/covid-19-and-global-food-security/

Contact Congress. Vote. The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate will continue to debate and pass further, large economic aid packages as the economy and employment get worse during the pandemic. Contact your member of Congress and your U.S. Senators to urge them to include increased funding for families in need and programs like SNAP that provide food aid. During the remaining 2020 primaries and in the November general election, vote for candidates who support strong Federal action for economic stimulus that ensures income and food relief for low-income American families — from communities and colleges. https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative;https://www.senate.gov/senators/How_to_correspond_senators.htm

— Julianna Tresca, Rachel Carson Council Fellow, UNCW. Julianna Tresca is a senior at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington majoring in Geology and Environmental Science with a focus in geospatial technologies. [email protected]





Barrett, S. (2020, March 22). Coronavirus on campus: College students scramble to solve food insecurity and housing challenges. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/23/coronavirus-on-campus-students-face-food-insecurity-housing-crunch.html

Bartlett, K. (2020, March 23). Where to get food help in Williamson County during the coronavirus outbreak. Retrieved from https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/where-to-get-food-help-in-williamson-county-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/ar-BB11qZtK

Bryan, C. (2020, March 20). Coronavirus In New Jersey: Hotels, Casinos Donating Excess Food To Help Ease Food Insecurity Burden. Retrieved from https://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2020/03/20/coronavirus-in-new-jersey-hotels-casinos-donating-excess-food-to-help-ease-food-insecurity-burden/

Cape Fear Food Council. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.capefearfoodcouncil.com/

Featherston, E. (2020, March 16). Schools give update on school closures, free meals for students. Retrieved from https://www.wect.com/2020/03/15/new-hanover-county-schools-gives-update-school-closure-child-nutrition/

Held, Lisa. Congress Addresses Food Insecurity in Its Legislative Response to COVID-19. (2020, March 27). Retrieved from https://civileats.com/2020/03/12/congress-races-to-address-food-insecurity-in-its-legislative-response-to-covid-19/

Hernandez, D. (2020, March 17). What coronavirus means for food insecurity. Retrieved from https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/488055-what-coronavirus-means-for-food-insecurity

Kartholl, J. (n.d.). Food Assistance Program handouts. photograph, Munice, Indiana.

No Kid Hungry, Facts about Childhood Hunger in America. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.nokidhungry.org/who-we-are/hunger-facts

Walker, G. (n.d.). Lexie Stanton Volunteers. photograph, Williamson County Schools, The Tennessean.https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/where-to-get-food-help-in-williamson-county-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/ar-BB11qZtK#image=2

11 Facts About Hunger in the US. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-hunger-us