Basic Needs and COVID-19

Amid this Coronavirus crisis, people are hurting. While there is no hierarchy of oppression and grief, the spread of COVID-19 has acted as a magnifying glass, illuminating pre-existing inequities in our communities – and further exacerbating them.

We’ve watched families fight to stay in their homes amid fears of eviction after job loss. We’ve seen parents forced to balance full-time jobs and caring for children as schools nationwide shuttered for the remainder of the school year. We’ve listened as laid-off employees fear for their health, facing a growing pandemic without health insurance. Parents, reliant upon WIC assistance to provide healthy foods for their children, are continually finding shelves emptied of WIC-approved foods like formula, milk, cheese, eggs, and peanut butter.

Economic inequities on their own are hard enough to navigate, but coupled with a pandemic, they are seemingly impossible. Essential health and safety needs must be met and underlined in red ink. Arguably the most crucial vital condition for physical and mental health, it’s imperative that we find ways to reverse the trend and support our most vulnerable. 

From Spotlights to Solutions

Despite the messy implementation and botched workarounds, there is reason for hope. When this story was drafted, there was an ongoing critical situation in which those with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits had to navigate disconnected rules and regulations at the state and federal levels. In a time when the grocery store has been deemed a hotbed of potential infectious diseases, our most vulnerable populations were mostly unable to practice social distancing and utilize grocery pick-up or delivery options because SNAP regulations did not allow for delivery charges or prepaying purchases for pickup. 

To spotlight this issue, a published article from Civil Eats explored the urgency behind an online purchasing pilot and what it would mean for food insecurity when more states allow SNAP recipients to buy food online. They underscored that “COVID-19 demonstrates an obvious need for adaptation in the American food system.”

The calls to address these gaps in essential health and safety needs grew in intensity, with six U.S. Senators – including two former Democratic presidential candidates – delivering a passionate plea to the CEOs of Walmart and Amazon. The senators urged the billion-dollar companies to forego minimum order requirements and delivery fees for those using SNAP EBT payments, stating that the measure would give “low-income families […] the ability to purchase groceries without the burden of spending more than a family can afford to limit community exposure to the novel coronavirus.” 

The response from the federal government could have been faster, though not entirely nonexistent. Though programs are federally funded, much of the implementation and governance is done at the state level. The Food and Nutrition Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued waivers for the SNAP and WIC programs, allowing for flexibility in the administration of benefits within each state.


Today, many large grocery chains, such as Kroger and Wal-Mart, accept SNAP EBT payments for grocery pick-up.

Actions for an Equitable Future

Jennifer Bean, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the University of Missouri, explains that highlighting inequities during this pandemic, especially around food, is how real change begins. 

“We’re amid the stages of change,” Bean said. “This very situation may move people from the pre-contemplation stage, where they don’t realize the current structure is problematic, and move them into taking action. We can cultivate the political will to make change.”

Some areas where communities see the political will to make change are the distribution of forthcoming emergency funds allocated under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The CARES Act included $5 Billion in funding for the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) to provide relief for Americans, businesses, and communities experiencing the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19.

Communities, like those found in Columbia, Missouri, meet virtually with local officials to inform efforts to allocate relief funds. In other communities across the country, allocation activities identified have included increases to rent and mortgage assistance, assistance to small businesses, as well as immediate public service needs to address the COVID-19 crisis, such as quarantine facilities, food, shelter, and other health services. 

As one resident participating in the virtual sessions explained, light can be found during this moment of upheaval. 

“Isolation is going to bring us closer together in the long run. Everyone is impacted, but we will get a better sense of flexibility and what it means to work toward the common good rather than the bottom line.”

Discussion questions: What joint reasonable efforts have you seen in your community response to COVID-19? Use the comment option at the bottom of this page, so we can continue to learn from each other in this trying time.

Andrea Waner, MPA, wrote this article. Andrea is a social equity and human rights policy educator in Columbia, Missouri, and a contributing writer for Community Commons.

Skip to content