Along with empty streets, shuttered businesses and temporary morgues, food lines have become one of the defining sights of the US’s fight against the coronavirus. Across the country, people and cars have for months been queued up in astonishing numbers to access basic essentials to feed themselves – and in many states, the situation is still deteriorating
In an October report, national non-profit Feeding America wrote that “millions of people are newly experiencing food insecurity, alongside those who were experiencing food insecurity before the COVID-19 crisis began.”
The gains in food security made since the Great Recession have largely been erased, it says – and groups already disproportionately experiencing hunger, like Latinos, have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
The need for food assistance has now spread to states now facing the country’s highest per capita rates of infections, hospitalisations and deaths. In North Dakota, where the pandemic is currently raging out of control, one food bank has seen demand triple in just a few months – even as the state’s residents are overall the most food-secure in the US.
Hard-hit Wisconsin has this month allocated an extra $10m to the Food Security Initiative, which authorities set up earlier this year to combat hunger and keep food supply chains running; Food Bank of Iowa, meanwhile, distributed more than 2 million pounds of food in October alone.
But it’s not just the worst-affected states struggling to cope with new infections that are facing a hunger crisis. New York, which has kept the spread of the virus low after a catastrophic spring, is host to more than a million people struggling to feed themselves and their families.
Efforts have been made throughout 2020 to turn the tide. The Trump administration earlier this year set up a programme called Farmers to Families, which was meant to connect produce at risk of spoiling thanks to choked supply chains with food banks and distributors seeing an uptick in demand.
However, the multi-billion-dollar programme has faced questions over whether the vendors whom it has contracted are able to cope with the logistics of food distribution. Democrats in the House of Representatives are now following up reports that some of the money allocated was funnelled by some of the recipient organisations into their own non-profit subsidiaries that do not usually distribute food.
Adding to the sense of desperation and poignancy is the difficulty of celebrating Thanksgiving with family in safety.
The Centres for Disease Control has warned Americans not to travel to see their families this holiday season, pointing to extremely high positivity rates in many states and the inherent risks of travelling by air in particular. With older family members particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, family gatherings are considered highly dangerous.
And yet millions of Americans have already flown across the country in anticipation of the holiday, and a backlash to warnings against doing so has taken shape.
Texas senator Ted Cruz, who has previously expressed scepticism and even scorn about the severity of anti-coronavirus measures, on Sunday tweeted a picture of a Turkey with the words “come and take it”, apparently insisting that Thanksgiving would not be obstructed by the government.
He sent his tweet as morgues in his state ran out of space for more bodies – and as food lines in major Texas cities stretched to unheard-of lengths.
A week earlier, one drive-through food bank in Dallas said that in the course of a single day it had distributed food to 25,000 people, a high number of them seeking food assistance for the first time. Many were given turkeys.