Latinos remain disproportionately impacted by food insecurity. USDA can make progress on equity and racial justice.

In anticipation of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health slated for September 28, 2022, UnidosUS is releasing a series of blog posts concerning Latino priorities for a healthy and equitable food system. Below is the third in our series. 

Earlier this month, USDA released its annual report on food insecurity. As a result of a significant federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the national rate of food insecurity remained steady between 2020 (10.5%) and 2021 (10.2%) despite the pandemic’s economic toll on families. Yet 13.5 million households are still food insecure and experience difficulties with providing enough food for all their family members.  

Food insecurity continues to disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities. From 2019 to 2020, racial disparities in food insecurity increased, reflecting longstanding structural vulnerabilities  exacerbated by the pandemic. In 2021, the rate of food insecurity among Hispanics was 16.2% – a rate 2.3 times higher than that of white households (7%).  

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The White House Conference presents a critical opportunity to build on the lessons learned throughout the pandemic and make ending hunger a national priority across all levels of government. To achieve the Conference’s goals of improving food access and empowering every consumer to make and have access to healthy choices, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must advance racial justice and equity for low income, underserved communities. 

USDA nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are keys to reducing hunger and nutritional insecurity among vulnerable Latino children and families. In 2021, more than 41 million individuals participate in SNAP. More than one in five SNAP participants are Latino. Latinos also make up more than 40% of WIC participants.  

Barriers to participation prevent eligible Latinos from enrolling in federal food assistance programs 

USDA data show that more than 4 million Latinos are eligible, yet remain unenrolled, in SNAP. Additionally, WIC enrollment among eligible participants has declined over the past decade. Several barriers prevent Latino families and children from taking full advantage of the food assistance available to them, including: 

  • Limited access to, and availability of, culturally responsive and linguistically appropriate information. The limited resources to conduct outreach, lack of awareness of eligibility requirements, and limited information in Spanish-language about federal nutrition programs keep many eligible families from being able to access healthy food. 
  • Immigration-related concerns. Of the 18.2 million Latino children in the U.S., 95% are U.S.-born citizens. However, nearly half of these children live in mixed immigration status households. As a result of concerns related to immigration status, confusion around their eligibility for food assistance programs, and misinformation surrounding the public charge rule, many eligible families avoid food assistance programs.  
  • A significant digital divide. Hispanic adults are less likely to have a broadband connection at home. 35% of Hispanic adults do not have a broadband connection, compared to 20% of white adults. In addition to limited access to high-speed internet, Latinos experience limited access to computers and low levels of digital literacy. After many local SNAP offices were temporarily closed during the pandemic, many Latino families experienced problems with accessing or utilizing a computer to complete SNAP applications or upload documents for SNAP applications online. 
  • A lack of transportation. Data from USDA show that “nearly one-third of SNAP recipients use someone else’s car, walk, bike, or take public transit for their grocery shopping.” Limited access to public transportation makes it difficult for many food-insecure Latinos to access local food distribution sites. Moreover, the hours of operation at many food distribution sites may be unreliable or inconvenient, especially for farmworkers, many of whom are Latino and work long hours. 

The White House Conference and USDA’s Equity Action Plan present an important opportunity to tackle these barriers and increase access to and participation in food assistance programs 

As we told USDA in comments last fall, there is a promising and important opportunity to increase participation in food assistance programs by addressing barriers to program access and affordability and eliminating arbitrary barriers that make malnourished families ineligible for food assistance programs. USDA should: 

  • Expand direct certification for SNAP based on Medicaid eligibility data. Direct certification eliminates barriers for food-insecure families by removing an application process that may be confusing for mixed-status families, reducing administrative costs, and lowering churn. SNAP’s broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) provides states with the option to allow people to automatically qualify for SNAP if they participate in assistance programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). 
  • Strengthen culturally competent and linguistically appropriate outreach. Investments in outreach grants, outreach innovation, and program modernization in SNAP, WIC, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and other federal programs, must be made to capacitate trusted community-based organizations (CBOs) with the necessary resources to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate outreach, education, and enrollment to Latino families. Targeted funding for a culturally competent public outreach campaign to increase enrollment in the NSLP is also critical in improving nutritional security among Latino children.  
  • Innovate around grantmaking and technical assistance supports for CBOs. CBOs, including many UnidosUS Affiliates, act as trusted messengers connecting Latino families with nutrition assistance programs. However, limited resources and capacity create difficulties for many CBOs to apply for federal funding and operate a federally funded outreach program. To address these challenges, USDA should require and fund intermediary organizations to provide CBOs with technical assistance by supporting grants management, providing fiduciary supporting, implementing a CBO learning hub and network, providing funding up-front to support community-based partnerships and initiatives. 
  • Continue to raise awareness about improvements to the Biden Administration’s finalized public charge rule. The Biden administration’s recent immigration regulation replaces the Trump public charge rule that had put immigrants at risk if they used many government services. The rule protects noncitizens who access nutrition assistance programs and ensures that accessing these and other federal benefits does not prevent their ability to be lawfully present in the U.S. However, this news has not reached many immigrants and mixed immigration status families, who continue to fear enrolling in programs like SNAP. USDA must raise awareness of the new public charge rule by conducting outreach, hosting webinar trainings, and providing funding for technical assistance to CBOs who are uniquely positioned to close the information gap. 
  • Hold consistent meetings with Latino-serving organizations. To continue to identify barriers, challenges, and solutions to ensuring equitable access to federal nutrition programs, USDA should convene listening sessions regularly with local, state, and national advocacy organizations that represent and serve Latino and immigrant communities. 

Commendably, throughout the pandemic, the USDA took important steps to address rising rates of food insecurity, including increasing benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) Program. However, many Latino families and children continue to lack consistent access to nutritious food. USDA must build on its work to ensure that all families and children, including food-insecure Latinos, can access essential food supports. By addressing barriers preventing participation in these programs, the USDA and White House can ensure that Latino families and children have increased access to healthy food. 

Umailla Fatima 
Policy Analyst, Health Policy Project, UnidosUS

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