Had you told me three months ago that SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, would be expanded in North Carolina to provide qualifying families the maximum benefit based on family size, I would not have believed you.
And it’s not only that expansion. Our state has also been on the front line of advancing access to SNAP during the COVID-19 pandemic through the promise of an online shopping pilot and Pandemic EBT which adds an additional $250 for each child per month for school meals.
These advancements aside, I would not have believed you because the Trump administration has proposed several changes to SNAP eligibility rules, which would make it harder for families to qualify. However, the recent temporary expansions in access during this pandemic will dramatically improve people’s ability to feed their families, safely.
Now, wouldn’t it be great if we maintained these expansions — not just during the pandemic, but after we emerge from this crisis? Imagine how many children would no longer be hungry, how many parents would be able to rest easy knowing they will be able to put food on the table.
At the Food, Fitness and Opportunity Research Collaborative, a research lab at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, we focus on community-based food access research with communities of color in the rural parts of our state. As a result, we have long seen the racial disparities millions of Americans are only now recognizing.
These disparities are more pronounced in rural communities in North Carolina, where low-income people have poor access to fresh fruits and vegetables. During this crisis, data show us that rural dwellers are less able to stay close to home and must travel further distances for necessities, increasing their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
This pandemic is only now highlighting for too many of us the disparities that people of color, and low-income communities have been struggling with for generations. We now know that COVID-19 is affecting Black and communities of color at vastly disproportionate rates due to the inequities and historic barriers people face in accessing healthcare and economic opportunities.
The dramatic and swift response in North Carolina — in part by groups like No Kid Hungry NC and Interfaith Food Shuttle — ensure children and families have access to food during this crisis. These actions speak to the extraordinary power of getting things done and solving problems when in need.
Right now, and in the future, we must ensure equitable, safe access to food. For families participating in SNAP, this could mean maintaining the option to shop for food online. For rural communities, it could look like receiving shipments of food to their homes, or local distribution centers, much like how Community Supported Agriculture works to reduce travel time to stores.
Crises like COVID-19 highlight and lay bare the inequities in our society. They also push us to think outside of the box, create community-driven solutions to complex problems, and consider what is important in life.
Don’t we want everyone to have safe, affordable access to healthy food? How can we make this a reality now and once we emerge from social distancing? How can we center the material and immediate needs of those most impacted by this crisis?
We need to capitalize on the sweeping changes that have been made so quickly, to ensure comprehensive access to healthy food is a reality now and after this crisis.
Juliana de Groot, MPH, is a Dissemination Specialist & Project Manager at the Center for Health Promotion & Disease Prevention at UNC Chapel Hill.