Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: Our job is not done. Congress must keep addressing hunger

by Chad Morrison and Cyndi Kirkhart

Some of the most defining images in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic showed lines of cars as far as you could see, waiting for help at local food banks.

Those cars that many watched on the evening news were filled with families, including children, facing hunger. They included people receiving food assistance for the first time and others who had been to a food bank when they’d fallen on hard times in the past. Those cars illustrated the economic hardships challenging so many people on an enormous and overwhelming scale.

Mountaineer Food Bank and Facing Hunger Foodbank — like many food banks across the country — worked overtime throughout the pandemic to meet the increased need for food and to prevent children and families from going hungry.

Since 2019, both food banks have seen a 30% increase in the need for food assistance and our state is not alone. In fact, 94% of our sister food banks across the Feeding America network reported an increase in the number of people served compared to 2019.

Federal support and generous donations from people in our communities have been critical during this time of historic need. For Mountaineer Food Bank and Facing Hunger Foodbank, this support meant never turning anyone needing assistance away. It also allowed both food banks to provide quality, nutritious foods to the people they serve.

Our country is now anxious to return to “normal” and focus on recovery. However, as families in West Virginia now work to recover from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our neighbors remain unable to put food on the table. With rising food prices, the challenges for many people trying to feed themselves and their families have only increased.

Going forward, if we are to continue meeting demand in the future, the United States Congress must act to provide food banks with more long-term support, as the need for hunger assistance shows no sign of diminishing.  

Specifically, in the upcoming reconciliation bill under consideration, Congress must extend and expand the Summer/Pandemic-EBT program that provides food assistance to children who are low-income in schools and childcare centers, even during closures, like many experienced during the pandemic, and in the summer. Building on this program will allow this assistance to continue while making sure programs can continue during possible future closures.

Our nation’s food banks also need federal assistance if we are going to continue to meet the needs of all people in our community. It is critical that Congress address growing capacity shortages in our country’s charitable food system. Investments are desperately needed to modernize and expand facilities, improve cold storage capacity and replace aging equipment and vehicles.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program — which provides nearly 30% of healthy and nutritious food from our farms to food banks — needs an investment of an additional $900 million for food purchases to ensure food banks can continue to keep up with the demand from families facing hunger. This assistance is critical for older Americans with lower incomes and others in need of emergency food assistance. This program is also important for addressing pandemic-related supply chain issues, which impact food banks in ways similar to what we’ve seen in grocery stores.

We know how critical these nutrition investments will be for the  estimated  42 million people (or one in eight people) in the U.S. who  do not know where their next meal will come from  due to the pandemic.

 Congress must act to ensure families facing  hunger  in West Virginia can put food on the table during this unprecedented time and provide security to families in order to prevent food insecurity in the first place.  

Chad Morrison is the CEO of Mountaineer Food Bank. Cyndi Kirkhart is the CEO of Facing Hunger Foodbank. Hunger Free WV is supported by both of the state’s food banks in efforts to create a hunger-free West Virginia.