Food insecurity intensifies during the COVID-19 crisis

Efforts to address policy and structural barriers underway / /

The current COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately impacted the economic stability of more vulnerable New Hampshire residents and may lead to further increases in food insecurity, according to a new Foundation-funded report by the NH Fiscal Policy Institute.

Reducing food insecurity is one of the Foundation’s five grantmaking funding priorities. “It’s consistently one of the highest demand areas among our requests for funding,” says Foundation Program Director Patti Baum, “We’re working to provide support for projects that directly address food insecurity? locally, as well as to address larger issues that will require better public policy.”

The report points to data from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services showing that open cases for economic assistance have consistently risen since the COVID-19 crisis began, from about 120,000 in March to 133,000 as of early November.

Survey data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau helps describe the impacts and challenges facing households since the pandemic began. Nearly half of New Hampshire adults reported a loss of household employment income between March and July, and significant portions of households expected future employment income losses or reported difficultly paying for usual expenses.

Consistently since April, about one in every twenty households in New Hampshire indicated there was either sometimes or often not enough to eat in the last seven days.

The impacts of the COVID-19 crisis continue to affect communities throughout the state. Relevant policies and support programs for the people most affected, and for those with the fewest resources, will be central in helping to reduce food insecurity both now and after the COVID-19 crisis, the Fiscal Policy Institute states.

Why is participation so low?

The COVID crisis highlights a more long-standing issue. New Hampshire’s participation of potentially eligible families in federal nutrition assistance programs is quite low relative to other states.

USDA reports that New Hampshire had a 36.7% coverage rate among potentially eligible families for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program in 2017 (the latest available data).

New Hampshire is 47th among states in participation in school breakfast, 36th in participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), 32nd in participation in the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and 25th in the summer meals programs.

Advocates for addressing food insecurity, like New Hampshire Hunger Solutions (a Foundation grantee) and other organizations serving low-income populations, are concerned that structural and policy barriers are the cause of these low participation rates.

This means that there are too many hungry children and families in the state and that New Hampshire is leaving federal dollars intended to help low income people on the table.

Initiative underway

To address structural and policy barriers, the New Hampshire Food Access Coalition is working to support policies that bolster the economy and make healthy food accessible to all. The Coalition is comprised of 60 member organizations, including public health professionals, food banks and pantries, researchers, state and municipal agencies, non-profits, school nutrition directors and hospitals, among other members.

According to Erin Hale a research and planning associate with Food Solutions New England, a project of the UNH Sustainability Institute (a Foundation grantee), the Coalition intends to work with state policy makers to promote a state policy agenda that includes:

  • Increasing participation in federal nutrition assistance programs.
  • Supporting culturally appropriate communication and outreach efforts in multiple languages to increase awareness of eligibility for nutrition assistance programs
  • Funding initiatives that increase access to locally produced food such as Double Up Food Bucks, and the WIC and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Programs.
  • Leveraging hundreds of thousands of federal nutrition dollars currently left on the table, and out of the pockets of NH farmers and business owners, by supporting state nutrition incentive programs.
  • Participating in all waivers for federal nutrition programs during the COVID crisis.

“We’re reaching out to all incoming New Hampshire Legislators at the beginning of January to outline the importance of these priorities,” said Hale, “And we hope to identify some champions who want to work with us.”