COVID-19 emergency poses threat to food security

The COVID-19 public health emergency is creating an urgent food security challenge for households and communities in Wisconsin. Even before the pandemic, one in eleven households in the state were food insecure, meaning they didn’t have assured access to the food they needed. For poor and low-income households, the risk was already much higher. While it’s too soon to know how much worse the situation will get, there are reasons for concern – and for communities, the state, and the nation to take action.

Food security in our community rests on four pillars: financial security, robust federal food and nutrition programs, a strong emergency food network, and a vibrant food system. According to Judi Bartfeld, UW-Madison Food Security Research and Policy Specialist, “The COVID-19 emergency threatens food security by disrupting these foundations; in terms of food security, the pandemic is a perfect storm.”

Food security depends on financial security, and COVID-19 has dealt a major blow to household income. When money runs short, households often have to choose between paying for food or paying for rent, utilities, and other essentials. Since the onset of the crisis, many thousands of people have lost their job, with well over 100,000 Unemployment Insurance claims since March 15; others are losing pay due to lack of sick leave; still others risk losing their business; and many retirees and others who depend on investments are losing income due to stock market volatility.

Food security also depends on federal food and nutrition programs like FoodShare, school meals, WIC, and senior meal programs. These programs help stabilize food security by providing routine, predictable access to food, even as income and expenses change. The COVID-19 emergency has increased the need for these programs, while disrupting their normal functioning. This is especially true for school meals. Almost half of public school students in Wisconsin were approved to eat free or reduced price school meals even before the pandemic. With the statewide school closures, districts have had to develop new delivery methods just as need is escalating. Senior meal programs also need new ways of getting food to people, since group meal sites are no longer safe.

Food security depends, too, on food pantries and other charitable food programs. The COVID- 19 crisis is creating urgent new needs for emergency food, while also creating unique challenges. COVID-19 is disrupting staffing at food pantries, because many pantry volunteers are senior citizens at high risk of getting sick themselves. It is disrupting delivery models, which often involve clients coming into pantries and selecting food in a high-contact environment. And, it is disrupting food sources, as supplies from food drives and retail donations are down.

Food security depends, finally, on a vibrant food system. Most visibly to consumers, households’ anticipatory buying in response to COVID-19 is making it harder for some grocers to keep their shelves shocked. But more fundamentally, strategies are needed to protect the safety and livelihoods of people across the food chain; to ensure the safety and steady flow of products; and to support alternative marketing strategies for independent restaurants, food cart vendors, and small diversified farms, all of whom have lost major sources of revenue in the wake of COVID-19.

Responses to these challenges are rapidly evolving. To shore up financial security, federal and state legislators are working to get cash quickly to families and to expand access to Unemployment insurance; a temporary state moratorium is limiting utility cutoffs; and there are many community-based efforts cropping up to get emergency help to households. School districts are developing new ways to get meals to children, such as drop-off sites and bus deliveries. Food pantries and food banks are working to strengthen their capacity, shore up their food supply, and implement no-contact delivery models with strategies such as pre-packed boxes and mobile pantries. And local and state food policy councils have stepped up to provide guidance to local governments and partners.

In Sheboygan County, local efforts have been critical. Amanda Miller, FoodWIse Coordinator for UW-Madison Division of Extension-Sheboygan County, noted that “COVID-19 is creating real challenges for food security, but our schools and food pantries are working diligently to ensure that kids and families have access to safe and healthy food.”

For updated information from the Sheboygan County Food Bank, visit:

For school meal information, visit:

– Sheboygan Area School District grab-n-go-meals.cfm

– Sheboygan Falls School District

– Plymouth Joint School District

If your child’s school district is not listed, visit the school website for more information.

To learn more about emergency food sources and other services in the community, visit:

To learn more about food security and economic wellbeing in your county, visit the Wisconsin Food Security Project,

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