By Browne C. Lewis
Together, food insecurity and COVID-19 have proven to be a deadly combination for Black and Brown people.
Data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that COVID-19 hospitalization rates among Black and Latino populations have been approximately 4.7 times the rate of their white peers. The CDC suggests that a key driver of these disparities are inequities in the social determinants of health.
Healthy People 2020 defines social determinants of health as “conditions in the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.” The lack of access to good quality food is one of the main social determinants of health. People who eat unhealthy food are more likely to have diet-related medical conditions, like hypertension and diabetes, that make them more susceptible to developing severe or fatal COVID-19.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as the lack of consistent access to enough food for a person to live an active, healthy life. The federal and state governments have sought to address the issue of food insecurity by providing low-income persons with resources to buy food through the food stamp program. Nonetheless, that program falls short, and many individuals, and primarily women, who face gendered expectations to manage the home, still struggle to feed their families.
Food insecurity is more profound in food deserts. Areas are considered to be food deserts if the residents live more than a mile from the nearest supermarket or grocery store in urban areas, or ten miles away in rural areas. In 2015, the USDA determined that 12.8% of the U. S. population lived in food deserts.
The spread of COVID-19 has exacerbated food insecurity and made the job of feeding the family, one that has been disproportionately assigned to women, more difficult. According to the No Kid Hungry campaign, more than 11 million children live in homes where food insecurity exists. The National School Lunch Program acts as a safety net for those children. As a result, their mothers only have to worry about feeding them three meals during the summer months. When schools closed in response to the pandemic, mothers were tasked not only with helping their children adapt to virtual learning, but also with figuring out how to replace the meals that their children typically ate at school.
Women living in food deserts are often forced to feed their children low-priced meals from fast food restaurants or to purchase poor quality food at small neighborhood grocery stores. The advent and spread of COVID-19 temporarily removed those meager options. Most fast food restaurants temporarily closed. Furthermore, neighborhood grocery stores briefly shuttered their doors and many did not survive the economic impact of the COVID-19-induced lockdown.
Food delivery services that have made the lives of some people easier during the COVID-19 pandemic are not always available in food deserts. Because women living in these areas often do not have personal vehicles, they depend on public transportation. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the challenging task of conveying groceries via public transportation even more arduous. Some cities have reduced the number of bus routes and the number of passengers who can ride. To feed their families, women living in food deserts may have to take the risk of potential exposure to COVID-19. That is a choice that people living in one of the richest countries in the world should not have to make.
COVID-19 has highlighted the connection between food and health. The chance of dying from the virus increases for those persons with underlying health issues that are mostly related to diet. The pandemic has underscored the need to ensure that people have reliable access to food. Because of COVID-19, there are a lot of things about which people are insecure; food should not be one of those things.
Browne C. Lewis is Dean and Professor of Law at North Carolina Central University School of Law.