More households could face hunger when COVID-19 support ends, food service providers warn 26 Oct-Nov 1, 2022

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In the last six months, community organizations have distributed £15 million of food to community members across the region Public Health – Seattle and King County (PHSKC) Food Security Assistance Program (FSAP). The $5.4 million initiative, funded by federal COVID-19 emergency relief funds, has helped up to 10,000 people monthly, according to Sara Seelmeyer, senior manager of food security and human services at United Way of King County.

But even as Washington’s state of emergency ends around COVID-19, food systems officials said food insecurity remains higher than before the pandemic. According to data from PHSKC, more than 116,000 households were relying on the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as of August 2022, compared to approximately 98,000 households in February 2020.

Because FSAP is funded from one-time dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the program is expected to end on December 31, 2022. Food service providers fear many families could starve as programs like FSAP go under or are scaled back while food prices soar . The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that food-related inflation in the Seattle area rose 11.6 percent between August 2021 and August 2022.

The Food Security Program hired United Way to manage contracts with 35 different small and medium-sized nonprofits that distributed food to their community members in a variety of ways. Of the funding, nearly half a million dollars went to United Way to administer the program, half a million dollars went to a fresh produce distribution program with Cascadia Produce and $4.445 million went directly to the 35 community organizations. Organizations had to spend at least three quarters of that money on the food they distributed.

A key requirement of the program was to improve access to culturally relevant food, particularly in immigrant, refugee, Black and Indigenous communities disproportionately affected by food insecurity due to structural racism.

According to Roxana Pardo Garcia, the co-founder and CEO of Alimentando al Puebloculturally relevant food is vital for a number of reasons.

“The first [reason] — the practical — it reduces food waste,” Garcia said. “If you bring people the food that they eat, the likelihood that they will throw it away is very small or non-existent.”

Garcia added that culturally relevant food can bring joy to people and bring back happy memories of people’s childhoods. She also said that although the pandemic is coming to an end, most of the long-term aftermath has yet to be realized.

“As a community that’s been disproportionately affected by the pandemic … it’s incredibly important for us to nurture a culture of caring,” Garcia said.

Founded in 2020 amid the pandemic, Alimentando al Pueblo is the region’s first Latin American food bank, serving approximately 200 to 300 families in South King County every two weeks. As part of FSAP, the organization received $100,000 to help buy groceries and create a happy atmosphere during distribution days. Garcia said the organization sometimes books local musicians or buys bouquets of flowers from Hmong farmers to distribute along with food.

“We’re really trying to transform that experience because it’s not the fault of our community, nor is it the fault of our collective culture that there is food insecurity in our community,” she said.

Another organization that has launched creative programs to combat food insecurity during the pandemic is the Seattle Good Business Network (SGBN). As shops and restaurants were forced to close or operate only for takeout early in the COVID-19 emergency, some chefs, like Melissa Miranda of Musang and Kristi Brown from community and This brown girl is cooking!moved their kitchens to feed fellow citizens in need, running on donations and their own money.

Faced with these local business efforts, SGBN sought to fund the program and make it more sustainable with local and state grants. Using primarily ARPA funds, SGBN pays $10 per plate to more than 40 local restaurants and chefs to distribute 8,000 meals a month to community members. Among the many beneficiaries are Real Change sellers who receive food donations from Musang each month.

Mariah DeLeo, good food management project manager at SGBN, said the program not only feeds people, but also helps businesses stay afloat and employ workers.

Another organization that participated in FSAP is Utopia Washingtonwhich provided gift certificates and culturally appropriate food boxes to more than 2,000 Pacific Islanders and other community members of color.

Elizabeth Kimball, program manager at PHSKC, said organizations in the FSAP have made 2 million contacts since April 2022, when organizations began distributing food. However, Kimball said the program is likely to end unless King County Council decides to use local taxpayer money to save it. Kimball is preparing a report to the council and district leadership with needs and recommendations, due by February 7th.

While it is uncertain whether this social safety net built during the pandemic will survive into 2023, the needs of hunger and food insecurity are even greater than they were just a few years ago. Jen Muzia, General Manager of the Ballard Food Banksaid her organization now regularly serves 6,000 homes a month — double the number of people it was pre-COVID-19.

Due to inflation and supply chain issues, sourcing ingredients and products for distribution is becoming increasingly expensive.

“I just had a staff meeting before [interview], and someone mentioned that broccoli is up $30 in the last three weeks just for a 20-pound bag,” Muzia said. “So it went from $44 to $70 for a 20 pound bag.”

When it comes to culturally relevant foods that have to be imported, the problems in the supply chain are even more acute.

A respite from inflation is for people who receive SNAP. In early October, the US Department of Agriculture increased benefits by 12.5 percent to account for inflation.

However, families could also see their SNAP benefits cut significantly starting this December due to the end of Washington’s coronavirus state of emergency. This change could cost the average family receiving SNAP benefits $175 a month, according to a spokesman for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. The state is still asking the federal government to renew these emergency quotas, but does not currently expect an extension.

Seelmeyer worries that food banks and other service providers will not be able to keep up with projected increases in demand as welfare programs are scaled back this winter.

“I think as SNAP allocations go down, we’re going to see a lot more people who have to rely on the emergency food system,” she said. “And I’m really concerned about whether the emergency food system has the capacity to meet that need.”

Disclosure: Real Change receives a grant from King County for articles in this series. The county receives no advance notice of articles or editorial control.

Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find her on Twitter, @GuyOron.

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