Before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 35 million people across the U.S. lived in a food-insecure household. The ongoing pandemic has only diminished many people’s ability to access food.

An analysis by Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, said pre-pandemic data showed the lowest food insecurity rates in 20 years, but the current crisis has reversed progress made over the last decade.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active and healthy life.

According to 2017 data from Feeding America, about 17.5% of Riley County’s population experiences food insecurity, which is about 5% higher than the state average. In the 2020 Riley County Community Needs Assessment, 16.1% of respondents said they had been concerned about having enough food to eat before and 14.4% disagreed that it was easy for them to access healthy food. About 7% reported they had skipped meals in the past seven days because they could not afford them.

Vickie James, coordinator of the Food and Farm Council of Riley County and City of Manhattan, said a number of factors play into why the rate is higher in the county, but one of the largest is because the area is home to transient populations such as K-State students and military families at Fort Riley.

The fact the pandemic has led to business closures or people losing their jobs has only escalated the problem, James said, and it has touched the lives of people who may not have struggled with food insecurity before. James said food banks and other organizations have since seen need increase within the community.

Debbie Nuss, Flint Hills Wellness Coalition chair and a member of the FFC Food Insecurity Community Action Team, helps with the Common Table program, which provides free meals to the community throughout the week at various locations in Manhattan.

Pre-COVID, the program fed about 70 individuals per meal. Now, especially within the last few weeks, that number has increased to about 100 to 120, Nuss said.

Common Table typically allowed participants to sit down and socialize while eating, but because of the pandemic, it now offers biodegradable to-go food containers. However, that has left some people without a convenient place to eat, so Nuss said First Presbyterian Church recently stepped in to offer its gymnasium for people to eat their meals in a physically distant space out of the cold.

The Manhattan-Ogden school district has served thousands of free breakfasts and lunches to students and their siblings since March though its U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded program. Stephanie Smith, USD 383 Nutrition Services Director and FFC member, said every family in the district is eligible to participate, and it will continue providing the free meals through the holiday breaks.

“Something we hear a lot from parents is ‘I don’t want to take from someone that’s in more need than we are,’” Smith said. “When children get our meals, you’re not taking from someone else because we are federally funded. ... We do want families to take advantage of our program even if they aren’t as high need as someone else they know.”

One of the ways the community has tried to streamline the process of finding resources to get food or help is through the new website. The site serves as a one-stop-shop to locate resources for free food and transportation, ways to donate food or money, find volunteer opportunities, buy local groceries and more.

While food distribution programs are filling a gap, community leaders said more permanent solutions to addressing food insecurity come from working with government leaders and organizations to change policies and systems, such as reducing or abolishing the state sales tax on groceries.

“We need to make it easier for people to get to food or get the food to them,” James said.

James said beginning in January, the FFC and its partners will begin working on getting community input on food system-related issues. It will take about a year to complete the process that includes gathering information on what residents think are the barriers to accessing food, ways to improve recycling and more. From that information, James said, the team will create a master plan for policy goals and objectives that the city or county commissions can adopt.

Nuss added that tackling the root of food insecurity must be addressed alongside other issues including poverty, affordable housing, transportation and low-wage employment, as they are all intrinsically linked.

“I think the pandemic has pointed out to us that things are more fragile than maybe we realized, and we always talk about something needing to change, but if we don’t really start to talk about serious system and policy changes, we’re not going to come out of this on the other side better,” Nuss said. “I’m not trying to sound fatalistic or doomsday, but it’s been hard for people in the community. The high note is we are doing things, and the community rises to the challenge, but you can only rise to the challenge so many times before you have to deal with the challenge.”

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