COVID-19 increases South Side food insecurity
By Shayla Simmons
Over a year has passed since the first reported case of COVID-19 was announced in the U.S., the second of which was diagnosed in Chicago, the lasting impact of the virus continues to be felt across the country. The roll out of vaccines, continually improving employment rates, and the steady “reopening” of public spaces all point to the beginnings of starting on the road to recovery, albeit slow.
However, due to the rapid increase of unemployment and poverty rates because of the pandemic, as well as several additional factors, a concerning number of families across the 50 states are facing the pressing reality of food insecurity – a far cry from the pervasive imagery of panicked shoppers taking to their local grocery retailer to stockpile emergency supplies.
It is projected that more than 400,000 Chicagoans faced food insecurity in Illinois — and 13 percent of all Illinois children—lived in homes where there was not enough food. An estimated 45 million people (around 1 in 7) experienced food insecurity in 2020 according to Feeding America, the country’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization.
“The demand [for services] has doubled,” shared Neli Vazquez Rowland, president of A Safe Haven, a local food pantry site and homeless shelter. “Our food pantry is experiencing a surge in demand as well. Make no mistake, there’s a lot of collateral damage that’s happening beneath the pandemic.”
“Historically, we held annual Thanksgiving and Christmas food drives, but last year we started holding monthly food drives because we saw a need for them in the community,” said Angela Slater, a member of Victory Apostolic Church in Matteson (a south suburb of Chicago). “A lot more people are out of work due to COVUD-19 and children being t home instantly doubles our food bill. We’ve specifically been asked to provide quick meals like boxes of cereal and oatmeal so that the kids will be able to feed themselves.”
While limited access to healthful food options technically defines an element that determines the presence of a food desert, additional considerations include low household income, inadequate access to transportation, high levels of unemployment, and very large or very sparse populations.
Unemployment and poverty rates are both cited as major factors that impact an individual’s likelihood of experiencing food insecurity, both of which recorded record highs in the midst of COVID-19. The economic recession experienced by many exacerbated the issue of food insecurity across the country.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, immediately resulting in state sanctioned stay-at-home mandates and closures of businesses deemed “non-essential.” Within the following weeks, claims for unemployment insurance skyrocketed in tandem with unemployment rates. By April 2020, the national unemployment rate increased 10.3 percentage points for a total of 14.7 percent – the highest rate and overall recorded monthly increase since rates were first recorded in 1948 according to the U.S. Bureau Labor Statistics.
Unemployment rates in Cook County followed the same trend. In April 2020, the county saw an unemployment rate higher than the national average at 18.1 percent – a dramatic increase from the previous month’s reported unemployment rate of 4.8 percent.
With these factors in mind, the resolution of such an issue is not as simple as opening new grocery stores within the borders of heavily impacted areas. Even if additional food retailers were to open within these communities, the affordability of groceries plays a major factor in the likelihood of being purchased. Coupled with social distancing guidelines suggested by the CDC, access to physical grocery stores has been further limited within these communities.
Though many turned to grocery delivery programs to circumvent trips to the grocery store, the additional financial constraints of such services did little to service individuals who were and continue to be impacted financially due to the virus.
“Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue of food insecurity for families across Cook County,” said Commissioner Bill Lowry (D-3rd), who represents Bronzeville, Greater Grand Crossing, Woodlawn and downtown Chicago.
In a private research study conducted by NBC Washington, which compared the prices of grocery shopping across several grocery delivery apps, found price differences that ranged from 30% to 40%. This difference, which can be attributed to delivery fees, app markups, and unspecified fees, further widens the chasm felt by those in need of access to essentials.
In the year since COVID-19 began its spread throughout the country, the status quo has been challenged for individuals across the country; most likely with longstanding impact that can and will be felt for months, if not years, to come. However, the effects will be felt with far more impact and depth by those in communities deemed most vulnerable.
Thanks to the generosity of funding provided by the Field Foundation in producing this article.