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Families need more 'food assistance' to help them prepare for the next COVID wave: FRAC President on food insecurity

Luis Guardia, Food Research and Action Center President joins Yahoo Finance Live to break down why food insecurity is on the rise as coronavirus cases surge across America and explain how food banks are stimulating the economy.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: Welcome back to Yahoo Finance Live. As we've been discussing through this pandemic, more and more Americans are struggling with the issue of food insecurity. When you look at the numbers, they're staggering to size it all up. Keep in mind before the pandemic hit back in 2018, nearly 8 million Americans, just 4% of adults here in the country reported members of their household sometimes are often not having enough food to eat.

That number surged to 26 to 29 million Americans or 11% of adults since we've hit this pandemic here. Well, joining us now to discuss that is Food Research and Action President Luis Guardia joins us now as part of our Food Insecurity in America segment sponsored by CIT. And Luis, I mean, the numbers are staggering here. I know that's just the headline number, but talk to me about what you're seeing play out across the nation here. Put that number to context for us when we talk about how big of a problem this is now become.

LUIS GUARDIA: Yeah, it's an enormous problem. And as you mentioned in our report, when we saw that 26-- 29 million adults reported that they sometimes are often don't have enough to eat, that is a state of food insecurity where people are not just-- it's beyond food insecurity in a way. There is-- it's beyond not having certainty about where your food is going to come from. It's actually changing in meal patterns.

So it's actually having to make tough decisions about whether or not you're going to buy food. Are you going to buy medicine? Are you going to pay your rent or pay some of your medical bills, prescription medicines, all that stuff? So it's-- and it happened incredibly quickly. I mean, we saw equally the spike in unemployment, as well, during the early months of COVID. But we're concerned that things could get worse.

As we know, we're in the midst of a second wave of COVID. There's-- people are worried about unemployment insurance expiring, evictions on moratoriums or moratoriums on evictions expiring and unemployment increases as well. So, you know, I think you were reporting earlier there was some action on this-- some late breaking news on this. And we hope to see some food assistance in that it can help struggling families.

AKIKO FUJITA: To what extent have we seen the insecurity increase as a result of some of these programs being ended? I mean, you've already talked about the initial stimulus checks as well as the enhanced unemployment benefits. A number of social-- these nonprofit groups that I've spoken to have said, look, it's surprising how much that additional help really did help support the system overall.

But the fear is that the end of the year, everything will essentially come to a breaking point because these programs expire. When you look at the actual number of those who are going hungry, how much of a spike are you expecting?

LUIS GUARDIA: Well, we're-- as I mentioned, we are pretty concerned. I mean, with unemployment benefits, you know, if they're not renewed, if there isn't another package, that additional $300 could go away. I mean, we already saw it go down from $600 to $300. And as well, we're concerned about, you know, I believe it's 30 to 40 million people who could be facing evictions if that moratorium is not extended.

So, you know, in addition to the economy and joblessness and people not having enough money to buy adequate and nutritious food, we have these other factors coming into play. And it could be-- it could be quite devastating-- a quite devastating winter-- let alone, of course, the fact that we're-- as I said before, like, we're in this second wave of coronavirus winter.

We've known for a while that winter is going to be tougher. And if folks have additional expenses-- for example, a lot of struggling families have also utility bills that need-- that are coming due. And it's-- they really need that assistance to make up for that.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, Luis, I mean, when we talk about all the different aspects that the government could try to pull here in addressing, you know, the hardest hit communities, it's something we've been stressing in terms of the deaths that we've seen from communities of color. It also shows up in your guy's statistics, as well, when you think about who's actually food insecure in this country-- 1 in 5. But when you look at Hispanic or African-American communities, that doubles nearly 2 in 5-- 40% of that group.

Specifically, you guys laid out three policy proposals when it comes to boosting SNAP or food stamps, as they used to be called, boosting the minimums of that program and lifting the rules attached to it as well. But talk to me about how those implications or how those policy positions might actually more directly address some of the hardest hit communities here when you think about that money getting back into the economy here and why that's the right way to go to solve what we're seeing play out here.

LUIS GUARDIA: Yeah, so those policy recommendations-- they are really kind of rooted in a history of proven efficacy. So one of the things that we've been calling for for quite some time throughout the summer has been a boost-- a boost in the SNAP maximum benefit by 15%. This is in line with what we saw during the last Great Recession in 2008, 2009 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or the ARRA Act.

SNAP benefits were increased by 13% to 14%. So it's on that order-- certainly within that order of magnitude. And we saw a really beneficial effect on people who were struggling with hunger. Not only that, you also kind of hinted a bit to the and asked about the economy.

So the important thing also to note is when we had that increase, the Department of Agriculture and a lot of economists looked to see, well, what was the benefit of that? Well, we know people were fed and less people went hungry. But we also found out that SNAP is an incredibly powerful fiscal stimulus tool for the economy. And the numbers are quite impressive on that as well.

We saw that SNAP-- for every $1 of SNAP benefits spent, a $1.50 to $1.80 went back into the economy. So that's a really good return for-- for a public service program that is really kind of geared to help people. But we've also found that it boost the economy.

The other things that I think are important to note as some of the policy things is that we're also looking for-- for some of the harmful rules that have been put in place to kind of restrict access to SNAP that those be abandoned. You know, it is during right now during this time, it's really, really important that we don't cut off this benefit-- people.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, a very important reminder there, especially at the end of the year when that need is the most. Luis Guardia, Food Research and Action Center president. It's good to talk to you for this very timely conversation.

LUIS GUARDIA: Thanks for the time-- appreciate it.