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Emergency SNAP funding an essential part of an anti-racist COVID response

Abimael Chavez-Hernandez
Aug 13, 2020
Millions of Americans are struggling to get enough to eat during a recession that is producing record levels of hardship. Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) folks, many of whom have yet to recover from the Great Recession, have felt the greatest health and economic impacts from the pandemic and related recession. BIPOC communities are experiencing significant increases in housing insecurity and job loss, and their pain has been further compacted by historic levels of food insecurity. 

Unprecedented times call for bold, courageous action from federal policymakers.  A new COVID-19 relief package must include a substantial increase to food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), similar to what is included in the U.S. House’s HEROES Act. This is needed as more families face hardship and the cost of groceries has risen. An increase in SNAP will provide a boost of economic activity in those Minnesota’s communities that need it most, and ensure that struggling families are able to get enough to eat. 

There’s been an increase in the number of people turning to SNAP as an essential tool to get enough food on their tables since the pandemic began. Just before the onset of the pandemic in February, 370,000 Minnesotans participated in SNAP. That figure rose 14 percent to 424,000 this May. 

Responding to rising levels of hunger is both an economic justice and a racial justice issue. Although the pandemic-induced recession threatens many families’ food security, it is deepening hunger especially in communities of color. In 2018, Minnesotans of color made up about 20 percent of the state's population but were about 44 percent of those who participated in SNAP. This arises from a legacy of racist policies and ongoing practices that means that people of color are more likely to have lower incomes and be food insecure. 

The ability to create and keep household wealth is critical to a family’s ability to get and keep good jobs, and take advantage of other economic opportunities. Households of color are less likely to have built up a financial cushion to get through job loss or other economic setbacks. They have been systematically excluded from wealth-building opportunities, including ownership of agricultural land. Due to a legacy of unjust policies, generations of BIPOC families have lost farmland on which to shape paths for their family’s long-term financial security and build sustainable and culturally-appropriate food systems. For example, in the early 1900s, 14 percent of Minnesota farms were Black-owned; that figure has decreased to less than 2 percent today. Exclusion from wealth-building opportunities is exactly why history is being repeated in our current recession as demonstrated by the greater prevalence of hunger in communities of color. 

As we battle this recession, it is important to take an anti-racist approach that prioritizes the communities most impacted by the pandemic and resulting downturn. The nation’s response to the last recession should be a cautionary tale: failure to center Minnesotans of color in our policy responses meant that policy actions were less effective and racial disparities in economic well-being widened.

Expanded SNAP is one tool that should be made available to the millions of families struggling to get by while also being one step in reversing centuries-long patterns of discrimination. A 15 percent increase in SNAP that lasts for the duration of the economic downturn is a critical component of an anti-racist downturn response.