How COVID-19 Shines a Light on Hunger
I was a guest speaker at a recent virtual conference when someone asked me a question that took me somewhat aback.
What has the bright spot of the COVID-19 crisis been?
A bright spot amid so much sickness, death and economic hardship? But I quickly realized there indeed has been a bright spot we should acknowledge. Food insecurity – our nation’s hidden crisis – has come to the mainstream of society. COVID-19 has been a lighthouse of sorts for hunger.
Before the pandemic, most of us couldn’t relate to hunger or we thought it wasn’t a first world problem. We wrongly assumed that people – like those battling addiction or who were not working – brought hunger on themselves. But we now have family members, neighbors, co-workers and maybe even ourselves as real-life examples of those who face a reality of not knowing where the next meal will come from.
I admit that I had some misperceptions about hunger when I first got involved in 2013 at the West Side Food Pantry in my hometown of Kingston, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t long before I realized the people coming in for food weren’t addicts or refusing to work. Instead, they lived in my community and they all had a story to tell. It wasn’t so much about giving them a handout but a helping hand.
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This also was a time when I was hit with another defining moment. As a registered dietitian, I’ve always advocated that people make smart food choices and avoid non-nutritious options. That all changed the day a mother asked me if she could have a food that was being provided at the pantry. It was a high-sugar product with food coloring and despite my dietitian’s instincts, I said, “You can have all of the containers” while wondering how any mother would feed this to her child.
But the woman’s expression and tear-filled face quickly changed my mind and she told me something I’ll never forget. She said, “My daughter has been asking me for this, but we can’t afford it. You’re giving me the ability to be the mother I want to be.”
So while I’ll always endorse healthy foods, that mother made me realize that it’s OK for an occasional exception, especially when something can deliver more than nutrition.
Like many food pantries around the country, ours here in Pennsylvania is bursting at the seams. Before COVID-19, we served about 35 families and always had an abundance for them. Now, we see an endless line of cars and the amount of food we used to distribute in a month is gone in just a matter of hours every Wednesday.
Being there each week also has shown me another COVID-19 “bright spot.” You do see the best from people in the worst of times. Our previous team of volunteers was elderly, including some who suffer chronic illnesses. It was too risky having them exposed to so many people, so we had to replace them with different volunteers.
Volunteers move fresh foods in Pennsylvania. Increased food insecurity as a result of COVID-19 has raised awareness about some realities of hunger in the United States.
It’s been amazing to see so many people step forward to stand in the scorching summer sun and place boxes of food into the trunks of neighbors in need. Our volunteers even say being there helps manage the stress the crisis has brought them, and the outpouring of support offers a sense that the world will one day be OK again.
We do our best to deliver nutrition to these families. Milk is a prominent staple as are other protein sources, such as cheese and meat, as well as fruits, vegetables and grains. We even provide diapers and sometimes a little bit of cash so people can fill needs we may miss. One woman said the $8 I gave her would allow her to buy some gas so she could get to work the next day. Mostly, we aim to provide dignity and work to “normalize” the process, even to the point of having a lady create animal balloons for the kids who are there with their family.
A skeptical person recently asked me about the people we see every Wednesday. Did I think everyone there really was in need? My response is that nobody willingly would sit in a car for up to two hours waiting to get a box of food if they truly didn’t need it.
Yes, hunger is real, and it isn’t going away. About 37 million people faced food insecurity before the pandemic. Feeding America projects that number will reach 54 million, including 18 million children, by year’s end.
But the optimist in me believes we can turn the tide against hunger. More companies and people have stepped forward to help as they see the faces and hear the stories of hunger.
Maybe they realize it could be them one day in that long line of cars that wraps around the block every Wednesday, filled with people not so different from them who simply seek a little bit of help and hope.