By Gabrielle Costley

The Annual National Anti-Hunger Policy conference hosted by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Feeding America was held virtually from March 15th – 18th  this year. The conference facilitated a great deal of discussion and education about battling hunger and poverty in the United States. This article aims to reflect and provide a brief overview of what I learned from the conference, as well as highlights from the various panels. 

Overall, the conference summarized how federal, state, and other localities improved and adapted their practices. The COVID-19 pandemic required innovative and creative ideas for tackling hunger. This conference also provided updates on policy and plans to improve the existing framework for food programs. Some of the most common points of discussion were improving child nutrition, enhancing communication, and introducing greater equity into programs. 

Providing children with better access to healthy meals was a main topic of discussion. Data provided from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) indicated a  dramatic decrease in meals served from before COVID. Feeding America projected that the pandemic resulted in an increase in food insecurity for every US county. Improvements have been made to address this issue even in uncertain circumstances. The USDA Food and Nutrition services are helping to provide schools with needed flexibility for the unpredictable environment. Clear expectations are being made for schools to provide nutritious food to children with the appropriate flexibilities. States in the past year have been successful with the Pandemic EBT program, distributing $10.7 billion worth of benefits.  For the current school year, the Pandemic EBT has been modified three times and congress included provisions in the program to expand eligibility and simplified administration for the program. Additionally, the Biden administration increased the value of Pandemic EBT by approximately 16 percent. 

Plans for further expanding and improving the Federal child nutrition programs are being made as well. The Child & Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) provided suggestions to reduce paperwork and increase reimbursements through the program. For ease of access, it was suggested that the change to allow for remote enrollment in WIC should be made permanent. Recommendations were made to reauthorize child nutrition programs as participation in waivers has been slow. Going forward from the pandemic era, schools should continue to offer free meals for all students. This can help support communities by eliminating meal debt and improving the bottom line for school nutrition programs. The most effective programs have implemented partnerships between schools and community partners, as well as inviting communication and collaboration. Looking ahead programs should continue to maximize their flexibility and provide room for more options in outreach. 

Another one of the highly discussed topics was communication changes made to adapt to COVID-19 and how organizations are moving forward in the new era. In streamlining communications, organizations should consider the cost-benefit analysis of using multiple platforms and be aware of the demographics and groups they are trying to reach. It is important to maintain ease of access and make sure that connections can be made for those who are not familiar with most platforms. To avoid wasting resources and time on miscommunication, housekeeping should be performed beforehand along with evaluating the internal and external stakeholders involved. Talking to people on the ground and reaching out to see what works best for the groups you are trying to reach is essential.    

Taking time to consider technological access is especially necessary when providing for rural areas. Janie Simms Hipp, CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund, stressed that online ordering of food leaves out those without broadband capabilities. Even if online services create greater ease of access for some, rural areas must be kept in the conversation and not left in the dust when advancing current systems. This means keeping in place “outdated” points of access rather than completely phasing them out with advancements. If accessibility is a top priority, then it is important to make sure rural groups are considered when designing system improvements. 

Several speakers and conference panels took time to discuss the need to improve equity in anti-hunger programs. Distribution models should be modified to better serve people of color.  Data shows that families of color are disproportionately affected by food scarcity. In policy, it is important to recognize that decades of systemic barriers have made it so that certain groups are disadvantaged in receiving aid. This means that hunger and poverty programs have to divert more attention to revising their outreach and their strategies to provide for these groups. Also, speakers stressed the importance of having minority voices represented in decision-making processes. Moving forward programs need to consider the community they are serving, and policymakers need to design their framework to be more inclusive. 

One of the largest takeaways from the 2021 conference is that the Coronavirus pandemic has illuminated ways in which our current systems are vulnerable. Going forward not only will policy have to adapt to the “new normal”, but programs will as well.  New models need to be made to address the shortages in the system but hopefully, this pandemic has also allowed for policy expansions that will better address hunger and poverty in the United States.