The various issues that we face as a society have different effects on the way people live. Natural disasters can remove families from their homes. Sickness can cause people to lose loved ones, or an economic downturn can result in layoffs, foreclosures, and other negative financial situations. Sometimes an event can have an effect on many areas, such as the recent coronavirus outbreak that is now both a health and economic concern.
But there is one common underlying consequence of virtually any widespread issue: hunger. It’s quite literally the most basic need we all have, and even when things might seem mostly good in the world, there are still segments of people who suffer from food insecurity. What is the relationship between economic wellbeing and hunger? And even more importantly, how is the recent coronavirus outbreak affecting hunger?
Hunger and the economy
In 2019, there were more than 37 million people who struggled with hunger in the U.S. — which includes 11 million children. That number has been steadily decreasing in recent years, thanks to an improving economy, and 37 million is the fewest amount of hungry people since before the Great Recession. Many of the causes of hunger are directly related to the economy: poverty, job instability, unstable markets, and more are fluctuations that can either make hungry people suffer even more, or make people who were near poverty lose the little access they had to food.
Inversely, hunger on a wide scale can itself make an economy unstable. Workers who are hungry can’t perform their roles effectively. Hungry children get sick more often and require more hospital visits, which can contribute to high healthcare costs. Annually, the cost of food insecurity in America is $130.5 billion.
And even though hunger has been improving, that doesn’t mean we’re even close to being in the clear. 37 million people is still an unimaginable amount of people without nourishment. Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, put it best, saying, “Less hunger is better, but we’re still talking about a number of hungry people equal to the combined populations of Ohio, Georgia, and the five states of New England.” Even with aid like food stamps, there are still people who need help to feed themselves and their families.
Of course, charities and nonprofit organizations help to shoulder that burden. Personally, I donate to Food for the Poor and World Central Kitchen, but there are a vast array of hunger-related charities that are also doing good work, both globally and locally. But overall, it’s clear that the economy and hunger levels are closely related.
Coronavirus as a case study
This point is made crystal clear from our current situation… as of early 2020, the coronavirus is upending the world — and the global economic downturn as a result is undoubtedly going to exacerbate hunger insecurity. Specifically, the social distancing and quarantine measures being made to flatten the curve and prevent the spread of COVID-19 are resulting in a great number of businesses that aren’t considered essential to close or severely reduce hours and staff. A great deal of people now have reduced incomes or are unemployed. In fact, the Fed estimates that coronavirus-related job losses could total 47 million, an unemployment rate of 32 percent. With such a drastic effect, even those who have had relatively secure income are now struggling to put food on the table.
This is no better exemplified by the numerous stories of food banks and soup kitchens that are experiencing shortages of both food and volunteers. Because of the economic situation of coronavirus, both food and financial donations have decreased, and volunteers have declined because people are afraid to get infected.
Addressing the economy, addressing hunger
So we know all too well that the economy is connected to hunger, COVID-19 has made sure of that. Traditionally, policy change or extensive government aid is considered the most effective way to address the root causes of hunger.
I think the answer to that is: time will tell. In light of the coronavirus, the government has definitely taken a step towards resolving hunger during this crisis. The CARES Act has a number of provisions that are ensuring people are able to provide and support their families. Whether or not the extent of this aid is enough is cause for debate, especially when considering that this is more of a temporary relief than a permanent fix for hunger. And the most prominent way that the government has addressed hunger is through SNAP, but benefits must be boosted in order to reach more people.
As for the rest of us, charity and philanthropy is by no means a negligible endeavor. And so many organizations have risen to the occasion, and will continue to do so during the COVID-19 outbreak.
For example, World Central Kitchen is working on integrating restaurants and meal delivery services into their food relief efforts in order to support one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic. Feeding America is partnering with school districts and local governments to ensure that the 22 million children who rely on school meals have access to food now that schools are closed. These kinds of escalated efforts are great examples of how charities and philanthropies can address economic factors of hunger, not just with large amounts of money, but with creative and innovative strategies.
There has been a lot of talk about how this pandemic will fundamentally change the way we live and behave in society. I’m willing to bet that this will also lead to a new era in which charities become slightly more adept at helping people in need, as they become more able to shift their focus a little more toward more long-lasting efforts. The government will do what it does, but hopefully, we as givers and the organizations we support will be able to make a bigger dent in the hunger crisis, during the COVID-19 situation and beyond.