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

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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