As families gather across the country to celebrate the holidays, many are struggling to fill their kitchens with fresh food and groceries.
The U.S. has made virtually no progress toward solving this issue of food insecurity in the last two years, according to United States Department of Agriculture data. More than 10% of U.S. households (13.8 million) were food insecure at some time during 2020, unchanged from 2019, the government said.
This problem has particularly hit Black and brown communities hard.
During the pandemic, residents in Harlem, New York, leaned on local organizations like New York City's The Brotherhood Sister Sol for resources, guidance and food. The group has taken matters of food insecurity into its own hands with a weekly grocery distribution that feeds more than 500 families in the neighborhood.
The organization says it's on track to distribute more than 1 million meals by the end of 2021.
"Each and every week, families just express immense relief at the fact that BroSis continues to support them in these ways," said Brittany Reyes, Sister Sol coordinator at BroSis.
The organization handed out turkeys and holiday favorites over Thanksgiving week but community members are dependent year-round on others for food. In New York City alone, about 19% live in poverty, according to the city.
Khary Lazarre-White, BroSis co-founder and executive director, said, "This is a community that's still desperately in need because of a lack of investment in communities like Harlem and the South Bronx."
Food insecurity means that families have insufficient funds and resources to provide adequate food for their household throughout the year.
About 4 in 10 households with Hispanic/Latinx or Black parents reported food insecurity, according to a 2020 study from the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy think tank. That's almost triple what households with white parents reported.
Food insecurity is a symptom of larger systemic issues like poverty, said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at Urban Institute. Low-income families are often forced to trade off different kinds of necessities and expenses, sometimes leaving food off the table.
Not having consistent access to healthy food or stable food sources can have long-term effects on one's health and well-being, especially for children and adolescents who rely on food for their developmental growth, health experts say.
"It's really important to frame food insecurity as a public health issue," Waxman said.
People who are food insecure are more likely to have chronic diet-related diseases and are likely less able to manage it, according to research by the USDA. The study also showed that food insecurity is also often associated with cognitive delays and behavioral challenges in children and adolescents.
"We're probably the wealthiest country in the history in recorded history, yet we have food insecurity [at a level] that is just incredibly alarming," said Luis Guardia, the president of the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit research organization working to eradicate poverty.
Several tools that Guardia calls the "country's first line of defense against hunger" have been proven to reduce hunger. The federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program allows impoverished families to purchase food in authorized grocery stores. National school meal programs help feed children while they're at school throughout the day -- a system that proved to be critical during the pandemic when schools shut down.
Waxman and Guardia, however, said these programs still have their flaws and are in need of expansion. SNAP benefits are inadequate compared to local food prices in some locations and some Americans earn just above the income required to attain these benefits.
"What we need is the political will," said Guardia. "There really shouldn't be any excuse for anyone to go hungry in this country." But the expansion of these programs throughout the pandemic helped keep the country on track during a period where it would have been expected it to implode, Waxman said.
"The problem is that we don't lean into these problems long term," Waxman said. "We have that short Band-Aid kind of approach. My concern is that while the overall unemployment rate is improving, it's not that way for everyone and yet, we're already pulling back all kinds of systems."
She went on, "Will we learn lessons from the pandemic and know that we can actually make a significant difference?"
Food insecurity experts and the organizers at BroSis concede that grassroots food distribution efforts and pantries aren't permanent solutions to the problem.
"We have a tendency sometimes to assume the charitable food system will just sort of pick up all the pieces -- and they've done a heroic job during the pandemic -- but that's supposed to be a workaround," Waxman said. "It shouldn't be a primary safety net for anyone."
Added Lazarre-White: "The only entity that can respond to the level of inequality that produces food insecurity and hunger in our country is government. No private philanthropy can do that. Certainly no independent nonprofit can do that."
For now, BroSis will continue to fill the gaps -- showing up every Wednesday to feed the families who rely on them.
"So I think what we have to do is frame this work as justice work," said Lazarre-White. "The issue of basic rights, of housing, of education and food -- these are things that are human rights."