In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic the overall food insecurity rate in the United States was the lowest it had been in more than twenty years. Yet, more than 1 in every 10 households lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.
The pandemic made things worse.
The need for food assistance increased as millions of families – nearly 1 in 4 U.S. households according to one estimate – experienced food insecurity, the result of job loss and other pandemic-related factors. For many, quarantines and social distancing made it harder to get to affordable grocery stores, and school and senior center closings meant they did not have access to meals they had come to rely on. In 2020 alone, more than 60 million people turned to food banks and community programs for help putting food on the table – a 55% increase, according to Feeding America.
Sadly, as is the case for so many of our health and societal problems, food insecurity reflects the social inequities that exist in many American communities today. Before the pandemic, nearly 16% of Latinx people, more than 19% of Black people, and 23.5% of Native American people lived in food-insecure households compared to 8% of white people.
These challenges underscored the urgent need for organizations to find creative ways to work together to address food insecurity across the country. As has so often been the case when Americans have been in need, AmeriCorps members answered the call for help. AmeriCorps partnered with health departments and nonprofit and community-based organizations to help distribute food, staff food banks, connect individuals to food resources, and more.
In October 2020, AmeriCorps (the federal agency for volunteering and service) launched a new food security initiative, committing $2 million funded by the American Rescue Plan to support 100 new AmeriCorps VISTA members in New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, and Texas to combat the hunger crisis. In Maine, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry hosted approximately 25 AmeriCorps VISTA members as part of their Ending Hunger in Maine 2030 initiative. With both short- and long-term goals, their service focused on ensuring consistent access to healthy food for all and eliminating root causes of hunger and food insecurity. In Ohio, the Ohio Association of Foodbanks utilized 25 AmeriCorps VISTAs, along with an additional 10 VISTA Summer Associates, as part of their COVID-19 Food Security Response pilot. Throughout their service, the AmeriCorps members improved and expanded efforts across the state to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on food insecure individuals through summer meals for youth and supporting organizations committed to long-lasting solutions to poverty and hunger in local communities.
This year, AmeriCorps expanded the initiative, providing grants to Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, and Puerto Rico. Angie Rodgers, Arizona Food Bank Network’s President and CEO, told Arizona Public Media that, “[Food insecurity is] a tremendous need for both adults as well as children and seniors. We really need the support of those [AmeriCorps members] who want to give back to their communities from across the state, such as rural communities, here in urban Phoenix and tribes that reside in the Grand Canyon as well. This is kind of a crushing need; we’re seeing more people at food banks that we really need to be able to support. Because of COVID, we haven’t had (food bank) employees return back like we had hoped. I really think this will be a helpful kickstart to the economy, so individuals come back to food banking and to organizations that are working to fight hunger.”
Equally important to serving meals and providing food assistance, is addressing the root causes of food insecurity. Here, too, AmeriCorps is playing a key role. Earlier this fall for example, FoodCorps, a national nonprofit that partners with schools and communities to nourish children’s health, education, and sense of belonging, announced the Nourishing Futures initiative, a $250 million commitment grounded in equity that seeks to ensure that all 50 million students attending public elementary and secondary schools learn about food and have access to high-quality free meals in school by 2030. The commitment came as part of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health during which AmeriCorps partner organizations and grantees shared their experience to help inform the Biden Administration’s new national strategy to improve nutrition, end hunger and reduce diet-related diseases.
Hunger Free America, which runs two programs that place 200 AmeriCorps VISTA members on the frontlines of hunger at partner organizations across the country, is another key organization working to help society ‘move beyond the soup kitchen’ and ensure economic and food self-sufficiency for all Americans. Their summer and year-long programs work with local community partners to improve access to food from government and nonprofit sources, enable residents of food deserts to access healthier foods through farmers markets and community gardens, and ensure children in low-income areas continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session.
Hunger Free America AmeriCorps VISTAs also help promote and assist eligible participants in applying for government-funded programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) that can alleviate financial stress for low-income families by providing monthly funds to buy groceries.
According to the CEO Joel Berg, “The impact of programs such as AmeriCorps VISTA is literally incalculable, especially in rural areas where organizations tend to get less money from large foundations and corporations. To provide [our partners with an AmeriCorps VISTA] would be the equivalent to raising a lot of money from a grant, which you can’t always get. The impact in rural areas is profound.”
As the nation marks Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week from November 12-20, people are coming together across the country to draw attention to the issues of hunger and homelessness. If you are interested in helping your community combat hunger, consider joining an upcoming webinar to learn more about becoming a member in the AmeriCorps VISTA program where everyday citizens are tackling these issues.