Op-ed: How the Pandemic Made it Harder For Immigrants to Access Food | Civil Eats

Op-ed: How the Pandemic Made it Harder For Immigrants to Access Food

From avoiding public benefits like food assistance programs, to facing overwhelmed private programs, many immigrants faced increased food insecurity during the pandemic. 

Food is distributed at the Ebenezer Seventh-day Adventist church on July 22, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The church distributes hundreds of packages of food every Wednesday. While many New York neighborhoods have long depended on charities, food banks and nonprofits to meet their nutritional needs, the Covid-19 pandemic has only multiplied the number of residents experiencing food insecurity. Across the city groups that serve those in need are seeing a huge increase in clients. According to the mayor’s office, an estimated 2 million people are currently food insecure in New York City, which is up from 1 million people before the pandemic. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Struggling to feed her three children, Malena saw no other option but to migrate from Mexico to southern California in 2006. She eventually found work as a housekeeper, clocking more than 70 hours per week. With low wages and limited time to shop for food, Malena struggled to send money to support her children back in Mexico while also feeding herself and the young daughter who was living with her in the United States. But because of her undocumented status, she had been dissuaded by others in her social circle from applying for support through government programs and was too afraid to seek aid through local programs after hearing rumors that la migra—or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—was surveilling these programs.

Juana, who migrated to Vermont from Chiapas, Mexico, experienced food insecurity there that felt like an extension of the hunger she’d faced while growing up. The mother of four, whose younger two children were born in the U.S., worked in the dairy industry in an attempt to support her family on both sides of the border. And although she had newfound earning potential in Vermont, Juana felt encerrado (trapped) in her home, only occasionally going out for groceries and other basic needs.

Immigrants like Melena and Juana tend to experience a unique brand of food insecurity. As anthropologists working primarily with Mexican and Central American households and communities in the border states of CaliforniaArizona, and Vermont over the past decade, we have documented the economic, political, social, environmental, and health dimensions of food insecurity and the particular ways in which immigrants are affected.

Prior to the pandemic, households in our research communities were already experiencing heightened levels of food insecurity as a result of low wages, lack of affordable foods, physical and social isolation, and widespread distrust of many of the programs designed to help alleviate food insecurity. Border patrol checkpoints, surveillance by ICE, and ongoing detentions and deportations are a daily reality both in border areas and in places far from the border, and often inhibit immigrant households from accessing the programs for which they are eligible. These factors often create hostile environments and can pose significant barriers when it comes to accessing food and other basic needs.

Rates of food insecurity have risen significantly across the U.S. during the pandemic, thanks to widespread unemployment and lack of a coordinated government response. Findings from one study by the National Food Access and COVID Research Team suggested that household food insecurity increased by one-third between March and November of 2020.

That rise is reflected in many immigrant communities, where many people have lost jobs as domestic helpers, caregivers, and service workers in the restaurant and hospitality industries, and migrant farmworkers have faced an ongoing risk of contracting the virus and challenges accessing vaccines.

To complicate matters, many government responses have intentionally excluded immigrant populations from obtaining much needed forms of pandemic relief. Vermont is an exception; the state recently began offering stimulus funds distributed to undocumented workers who had been excluded from the first round of federal stimulus payments.

Immigrants without U.S. citizenship or formal immigration status also face a number of barriers in accessing government programs designed to alleviate food insecurity. While immigrant families with U.S.-born children may technically qualify for support for their children through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), our research has shown that many do not apply.

According to the people we’ve interviewed, there are many reasons to avoid these programs. Some people don’t have a clear understanding of the eligibility criteria, some associate receiving government support with stigma and shame, and others fear the possibility of becoming a public charge. The Trump administration’s move to reinstate of the so-called public charge rule—which barred immigrants who “unduly rely on public assistance” from a path to legal status or citizenship—intensified existing distrust among immigrants toward government programs and created a “chilling effect” across many human and social service sectors. Although the rule has recently been rescinded, the fear remains within immigrant communities.

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In the absence of government support, demand for support through the private sector has skyrocketed during the pandemic. Yet even these resources are mostly out of reach for farmworkers and others who live in rural areas and have few transportation options. The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, for instance, observed a 25 percent increase in demand between March 2020 and March 2021.

Prior to the pandemic, one of the benefits of private food assistance programs, which are relatively small, was that clients could more easily build rapport and trust with staff, volunteers, and other clients. But this changed as people flooded into programs, and many immigrant clients stopped showing up because they feared surveillance by immigration authorities, as well as virus transmission and infection. While many programs offer drive-up distribution, not all clients have access to cars and many rely on walking or public transportation to access food.

Many of the women we’ve spoken to have conveyed their sense of responsibility and obligation in overseeing the work of procuring and preparing food for their families—a process described by some as la lucha diaria or the daily struggle—while also attempting to shield others from the anxiety of food insecurity. During the pandemic, this gendered division of labor has been compounded by other economic and familial stressors such as remote schooling, job loss, eviction threats, health crises, and lack of access to healthcare. And many children within these households have lost access to school meals, putting further strain on families’ food budgets.

Alongside such challenges, these women have also underscored the importance of pooling resources, ranging from income to transportation, housing, food, and childcare, to help alleviate food insecurity. But even these survival strategies have been complicated by the physical distancing recommended during the pandemic.

As we collectively move toward the next phase of the pandemic, it is high time that we come to terms with the food injustices that immigrants in our country have long confronted. This means urging our elected officials to overhaul existing immigration and citizenship laws, changing eligibility requirements for public assistance programs—which might also take away much or most of the stigma that has been attached to them—and demanding a society-wide redistribution of wealth in the form universal basic income and living wages.

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Furthermore, as illustrated with the experiences of Malena and Juana, in addition to dozens of other immigrant households we have encountered over the past decade, those fleeing food insecurity should not be categorized as “economic migrants.” They should be granted asylum instead.

The pandemic has laid bare our dependence on the essential workers who are often excluded from the protections of U.S. citizenship and shone a spotlight on the vulnerabilities in our food system. Now is the time to work toward ending these disparities through solidarity with those on the front lines.

Megan A. Carney is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Regional Food Studies at the University of Arizona. She is the author of two books, the award-winning The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders (University of California Press, 2015) and the forthcoming Island of Hope: Migration and Solidarity in the Mediterranean (University of California Press, May 2021). Follow her on Twitter @megan_a_carney. Read more >

Teresa Mares is Associate Professor of Anthropology and the Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Food Systems at the University of Vermont. She is the author of Life on the Other Border: Farmworkers and Food Justice in Vermont (University of California Press, 2019) and is currently working on a co-authored book (with Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern), Will Work For Food: Labor Across the Food Chain. Read more >

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