Vulnerabilities in Food Access

Laura PeracchioThe following is an excerpt of an invited commentary for the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing on hunger and the COVID-19 crisis that was recently authored by Laura Peracchio, Judith H. and Gale E. Klappa Endowed Professor of Marketing, together with Melissa Bublitz (PhD ‘11), Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and the leadership team at Hunger Task Force. Peracchio has spent much of her career conducting Transformative Consumer Research, which uses ideas about how people think and make decisions to make the world a better place. She has published numerous articles on food well-being.

Pandemic Reveals Vulnerabilities in Food Access: Forging a Path to End Hunger

Emergencies and disasters often expose existing flaws in our systems. As Warren Buffet said, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you discover who’s been swimming naked.” We have been swimming in the buff. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed systemic vulnerabilities in food access for people experiencing hunger. Simultaneously, it has revealed opportunities to strengthen food access. Working with Hunger Task Force (HTF), an innovative anti-hunger nonprofit that operates a food bank in Milwaukee and advocates for local, state, and federal policy to end hunger, we outline three lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic and raise policy and research questions related to ensuring food access for all.

Lesson 1: The systemic problem of food access requires a systematic solution.
Federal nutrition programs must offer uninterrupted benefits that support healthy and sufficient food access. The COVID19 crisis has underscored the critical role of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in providing a safety net against hunger. In March 2020, SNAP contributed $65 million to the food purchasing power of people experiencing hunger in Wisconsin. However, when schools closed due to the crisis and children lost access to school meals, their families’ SNAP benefits did not automatically increase. The COVID-19 crisis has also revealed how a coordinated, local food access distribution system is superior to a patchwork network of organizations struggling to secure and distribute food. Even well-established nonprofits are struggling during this crisis, often failing to supply food pantries as panicked consumers empty grocery store shelves and retailers impose quantity restrictions on purchases. By contrast, nonprofits with well-developed wholesale supply channels have been better able to maintain food access and innovate alternative distribution mechanisms.

Lesson 2: Organizations must collaborate to serve people in need.
The problem of food access does not occur in isolation. Many who face hunger also need access to housing, healthcare, childcare, job training, and other services. Providing for such needs through separate channels creates systematic inefficiencies, highlighting the importance of coordination and collaboration between nonprofit and governmental partners.

Lesson 3: Facing hunger transforms attitudes toward people who experience hunger.
With the crisis resulting in unprecedented levels of unemployment, people who have never before experienced hunger are becoming vulnerable. Take, for example, Tini Mason, who recently visited a Pittsburgh food bank for the first time in his life after losing his job. He described the sight of mile after mile of people lined up in cars to get food as “an eye-opener, mind-blowing, an experience I will never forget.” Such awareness can change attitudes and beliefs about hunger and why it persists, overcoming the misperception that people who experience hunger are lazy and need to work harder.

There is no question that as a society we need to better serve those who are vulnerable.

The full commentary, including the policy and research questions the authors identified, can be found in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.