Gets Real: Food insecurity spikes sharply among Black and Hispanic families

A constant stream of people came to the windows at the Northwest Harvest SODO Market in Seattle on Wednesday. Many families were people of color — Asian, Hispanic or Latino, and Black.

Northwest Harvest, its market location, serves an unusually high percentage of BIPOC communities, but data shows food insecurity — among minority families in particular — is climbing rapidly.

“If it wasn’t for this place, a lot of people would be starving right now,” said George Maher, food bank client at the Northwest Harvest SODO Market.

The pandemic and unemployment mean lines at food banks are longer than ever. Some at the food bank on Wednesday said they recently lost their jobs.

“I used to do countertops, granite, marble countertops,” said Moses Ngigi, who lives in Seattle. “Not getting income, that’s the hardest part. I have my parents, so I need to make income — they’re old. They’re in their 80s, and they depend on me,” he said.

Demand at food banks has doubled statewide. One example? The Ballard Food Bank went from serving 3,200 people a month to about 6,000.

And in the lines at food banks, you’ll find more families of color than ever before.

“Everybody thought when COVID started that it was going to be this great equalizer, but it’s really been more exacerbating the differences and the disparity,” said Christina Wong, the director of public policy and advocacy at Northwest Harvest.

Data from U.S. Census Household Pulse surveys charted by The Hamilton Project shows Black families with children are dealing with food insecurity at almost triple the rate of white families — nearly 30% compared to under 10%.

The graph also makes clear how the need across the board has skyrocketed.

“People are swarming the lines,” Maher said.

Northwestern University in Illinois isolates the U.S. Census data on food insecurity state by state. Based on the latest available data, it found in July, Black families in Washington state coping with food insecurity spiked dramatically to 51% from 31.2%, while Hispanic or Latino families spiked to 33.4% from 20.9%.

White families suffering from food insecurity jumped to 17.1% from 15.8% in the same period.

Northwest Harvest’s mission is to fight not only hunger but also food inequity.

“We cannot succeed at ending hunger until we dismantle racism,” Wong said.

So how are hunger and racism related? The University of Washington just completed a survey study on hunger in the state.

“Food insecurity is often related to poverty and economic security disruptions, so households with people of color tend to be employed in jobs that are lower-income jobs or maybe in jobs that are more likely to be disrupted by the pandemic,” said Jennifer J. Otten, associate professor of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences in the University of Washington School of Public Health.

Plus, Northwest Harvest points out on a systemic level, people of color have less access to quality education, which contributes to attaining lower wages and creates a feedback loop.

Now during the pandemic, many of the service-based essential jobs filled by minorities have been eliminated.

“It’s everything from the individual racism someone suffers when they’re trying to find a job, if they’re a person of color, to the systemic racism,” Wong said.

Northwest Harvest stated that low-income white families are hurting too.

“But we are also acknowledging there are certain privileges inherent to their race that makes it a little bit easier for them to get back on their feet than families of color,” Wong said.

Food bank customer Darryl Hundley said work during the pandemic is even harder to come by.

“Looking for a job is more difficult because everyone is vying for the same job,” Hundley said. He said as a Black Jewish man, the racism he experiences is constant and across the board.

And the challenges are piling up.

“We have to not only worry about this deadly disease, we have to worry about police brutality, racism,” Hundley said.

Northwest Harvest stated if there’s an upside to the pandemic, it’s the awareness and movement around race.

“Our economic recovery from all this absolutely has to be an equitable one. This is our chance to avoid the mistakes that have been made in the past,” Wong said.

For people who are struggling, customer Maher has some advice on getting help.

“Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t put your pride before your stomach,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve actually felt comfortable enough to come down here and get something to eat,” Maher said.

Northwest Harvest is also working to change public policy in an effort called “building the political will to end hunger in Washington.”