There is no escaping the fact that an alarming number of Kentuckians are struggling against unprecedented hardships, including hunger, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thousands of children are missing out on school meals — one of the few reliable sources of nutrition for far too many Kentucky kids. Families have been left without steady paychecks they need to afford groceries as businesses are shutting down and laying off workers.
Thankfully, many in Kentucky have risen to the challenge of ensuring everyone has enough nourishing food to eat during the crisis. Schools across the commonwealth have engaged in Herculean efforts to get meals to their students. They have been supported in those endeavors by the Kentucky Department of Education’s successful efforts to secure program waivers from USDA.
Kentucky Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company and the Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance Foundation recently made a historic gift of $500,000 to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Hunger Initiative. So far the gift has resulted in 6,000 pounds of beef; 10,000 pounds of pork; and 5,000 pounds of cheese – all sourced from Kentucky producers – distributed through the food bank network to those in need. Cal-Maine Foods also donated over 560,000 eggs for distribution through the food bank network thanks to Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles’s leadership.
Governor Beshear deployed Kentucky National Guard members to support food banks as the base of volunteers has been eroded by the crisis. These Kentuckians have provided thousands of labor hours to pack over 20,000 backpack bags for children and over 50,000 emergency food boxes.
Despite these and other impressive efforts, unfortunately Kentucky’s seven regional food banks and 800 partner pantries and meal programs are still struggling to serve everyone in need during this time of crisis.
Every food bank in the national Feeding America food bank network reported a significant increase in need for food assistance in their communities, with an average 40 percent increase in demand here in Kentucky. Food banks are struggling to help the many people seeking food assistance, including 30 percent who are seeking help from a food bank for the first time.
The only way to ensure no one goes hungry during, and after, the coronavirus crisis is through both a strong charitable sector and deep government investment in our federal nutrition programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP is the nation’s first line of defense against hunger; for every one meal provided by a food bank, SNAP provides nine.
SNAP is not only an anti-hunger powerhouse: It is also a critical economic multiplier. When low-income families receive SNAP benefits to purchase groceries, those dollars are circulated within and stimulate local economies. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office rated an increase in SNAP benefits as one of the most cost-effective ways to boost economic growth and create jobs in a weak economy.
Congress and the Administration have passed legislation that includes some much-needed support. However, Kentuckians need them to do more. To meet the growing need for food assistance, Congress should increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent — similar to what was done during the Great Recession.
As the Feeding Kentucky network continues to struggle to meet the immense need for emergency food assistance, we call on our lawmakers to boost SNAP benefits in any upcoming COVID-19 relief legislation. Because the economic crisis will likely outlast the pandemic, the increase must be kept in place for the duration of the economic downturn.
In the midst of heightened hunger and economic distress, strengthening SNAP is one of the smartest policy decisions our elected officials could make.
Tamara Sandberg is executive director of Feeding Kentucky.