The Covid-19 Crisis Shows Why Food Should Be a Human Right

With lines at food banks stretching for miles, the need has never been clearer to guarantee food to all U.S. residents.

Paul J. Baicich May 13, 2020

A move to guarantee food security should be part of the mix in the next federal relief package. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

With­in weeks of the U.S. out­break of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, as states start­ed imple­ment­ing stay-at-home orders, it was already becom­ing painful­ly appar­ent that local food banks would face severe duress. The need for food assis­tance rapid­ly increased across the coun­try as work­ing fam­i­lies on the edge found them­selves with­out a source of income, and unem­ploy­ment insur­ance had yet to kick in. Food banks encoun­tered a sud­den surge in demand mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to serve every­one in need. Local news sta­tions were replete with sto­ries of cars lin­ing up at food banks, with fam­i­lies hop­ing sup­plies would still be avail­able when they reached the front of the line. 

Progressives regularly make the case that healthcare and education are human rights. Why not food?

This should not have been a sur­prise. An esti­mat­ed 4 in 10 Amer­i­cans already didn’t have $400 in the bank to cov­er an emer­gency before the cri­sis. Things were bound to get worse with the del­uge of Covid-19 relat­ed lay­offs. The loom­ing prob­lem should have been obvi­ous even a year ago, when a Morn­ing Con­sult sur­vey of approx­i­mate­ly 2,200 U.S. adults revealed that near­ly a quar­ter of Amer­i­cans were slid­ing into debt in order to pay for neces­si­ties — specif­i­cal­ly rent, util­i­ties and food.

Accord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s House­hold Food Secu­ri­ty in the Unit­ed States report released last Sep­tem­ber, more than 37 mil­lion Amer­i­cans strug­gle with hunger. Near­ly 15 mil­lion house­holds were deemed food inse­cure, lack­ing access, at times, to pro­vide enough food for all house­hold mem­bers. These prob­lems clear­ly beset the impov­er­ished, includ­ing chil­dren, vet­er­ans, seniors and the recent­ly unemployed.

This dif­fi­cult state of affairs was only exac­er­bat­ed by the Covid-19 cri­sis, which has put imme­di­ate stress on the sys­tem of food banks across the nation. And the dra­mat­ic lines at food banks make it clear that demand by the pub­lic will not abate any­time soon.

In response to this cri­sis, through the CARES Act, Con­gress allo­cat­ed a one-time $1,200 direct pay­ment to most Amer­i­cans — a ver­sion of a uni­ver­sal basic income (UBI) that would have been a polit­i­cal non­starter before the pan­dem­ic. Yet this assis­tance has still been inad­e­quate for mil­lions fac­ing per­son­al finan­cial crisis. 

In mid-April, Reps. Tim Ryan (D‑Ohio) and Ro Khan­na (D‑Calif.), intro­duced leg­is­la­tion to give $2,000 per month to every Amer­i­can age 16 and old­er mak­ing less than $130,000, through what they called the Emer­gency Mon­ey for the Peo­ple Act.

It remains to be seen whether this approach will be tak­en up as Con­gress con­sid­ers a sub­se­quent Covid-19 relief package.

An alter­na­tive option would be to pro­vide guar­an­teed food secu­ri­ty for all U.S. res­i­dents, as well as a means to deliv­er it — ensur­ing food itself as a human right.

Such an approach may seem far fetched, but con­sid­er the fact that food is a neces­si­ty of life. Pro­gres­sives reg­u­lar­ly make the case that health­care and edu­ca­tion are human rights. Why not food? And while they are by no means uni­ver­sal, we do already have tran­si­tion­al” insti­tu­tions to pro­vide these ser­vices in the Unit­ed States that have been in place long before the Covid-19 pandemic.

In lieu of a full sin­gle-pay­er health insur­ance pro­gram, we have the tran­si­tion­al mod­el of Medicare, in exis­tence for Amer­i­cans 65 and old­er since 1966. For tuition-free col­lege edu­ca­tion, we have state-run (and even city-run) col­leges across the coun­try — going back to the orig­i­nal exam­ple of the City Col­lege of New York cre­at­ed in 1847 — vir­tu­al­ly ready to tran­si­tion into tuition-free insti­tu­tions giv­en enough fund­ing and the right set of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic circumstances.

And as for the pre­de­ces­sor to deliv­er­ing food as a uni­ver­sal human right, we have Food Stamps, or what has been called, since 2008, the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP). Ear­ly ver­sions go back to the New Deal era, includ­ing efforts by Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture Hen­ry A. Wal­lace and the pro­gram’s first admin­is­tra­tor, Milo Perkins, between 1939 and 1943. There were addi­tion­al pilot pro­grams” in the ear­ly 1960s, but it was The Food Stamp Act of 1964 that cement­ed the effort.

If the cur­rent means-test­ed SNAP pro­gram is tran­si­tion­al, the log­i­cal next step would be to make it uni­ver­sal, with the cur­rent role of the states sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduced, if not eliminated.

Means-test­ed pro­grams tend to be polit­i­cal­ly vul­ner­a­ble, reg­u­lar­ly assault­ed by the polit­i­cal right as hand­outs” to the poor. On the oth­er hand, uni­ver­sal pro­grams are more pop­u­lar, par­tic­u­lar­ly in a cri­sis, and under­stood as fun­da­men­tal­ly good for soci­ety. This should be an easy case to make when it comes to food, espe­cial­ly right now. (And if there are peo­ple who might not need” the expand­ed SNAP, there should be qual­i­fied food banks where their SNAP cred­it could be contributed.)

Under such an expand­ed SNAP pro­gram, adult indi­vid­u­als could be pro­vid­ed $300 per month, plus $225 per depen­dent. This fig­ure is more than twice the aver­age amount cur­rent­ly received via SNAP. The rough­ly 40 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who cur­rent­ly receive food stamps could quick­ly ben­e­fit from this increased aid. The 65 mil­lion Amer­i­cans cur­rent­ly receiv­ing Social Secu­ri­ty, mean­while, would get a well-deserved boost to their month­ly checks. This approach would also pro­vide a ben­e­fit for front­line essen­tial” work­ers — those labor­ing in hos­pi­tals, fire­fight­ers, gro­cery store work­ers, deliv­ery dri­vers, postal work­ers, farm­work­ers, those in phar­ma­cies, trans­porta­tion, and oth­ers who have had to keep work­ing to pull soci­ety back from collapse.

As we dis­cuss appro­pri­ate relief for Amer­i­cans to sur­vive this cur­rent cri­sis, there are cur­rent­ly three cat­e­gories of aid in the debate that go direct­ly to the pub­lic: A com­bi­na­tion of work-pay­ment relief and/​or a boost to unem­ploy­ment insur­ance; the reduc­tion, delay, or for­give­ness of debt when con­sid­er­ing mort­gage, rent, util­i­ties and high­er edu­ca­tion loans; and med­ical relief for Covid-19 test­ing and care, mov­ing in the direc­tion of Medicare for All.

Sure­ly, a move to guar­an­tee food secu­ri­ty to every­one — SNAP for all — should be part of the mix in the next fed­er­al relief pack­age. Rather than over­whelm­ing the exist­ing food banks that we have, wouldn’t it be wis­er to guar­an­tee every­one an absolute min­i­mum food diet? Clear­ly, feed­ing every­one at these min­i­mum amounts should not be seen as a lux­u­ry. It’s a rock-bot­tom min­i­mum, and a way to final­ly estab­lish food as an essen­tial right.

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