Barriers to Food Access in Latinx Community, Point to Deep Systemic Inequities and Discrimination

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State of Hunger in MA

Project Bread and Children’s HealthWatch, a non-partisan research and policy network headquartered at Boston Medical Center, release new research on food insecurity in East Boston and across the state of Massachusetts. Funded by Project Bread’s 2019 Walk for Hunger and The Boston Foundation, the findings not only strongly reinforce the role deep inequities in our system have in the disproportionately high rate of food insecurity experienced in Latinx communities, but also the power neighborhood bonds may have to help mitigate their effects.

We began this research in October 2019 in an effort to better understand how significant — or insignificant — a role systemic barriers, institutional racism, and discrimination played into a community’s experience of food insecurity. Despite being one of the wealthiest states in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, food insecurity and hunger and other economic hardships, including an inability to afford rent, utilities, child care, and health care have persisted in Massachusetts, disproportionately impacting communities of our state’s most marginalized residents. At the same time these data reveal a sense of confidence and strong relationships in the community. As we synthesize the findings of this study, it is impossible not to apply them to the intersecting ways in which the public health and economic climate have been so drastically impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has both illuminated and exacerbated pre-existing inequities faced by people of color, immigrant families, and those with fewer economic means. The hardships faced by these communities, including the Latinx community which we examine in this study, have only deepened as the crisis and its economic aftermath have unfolded.

As our state and nation look to address ongoing food insecurity, hunger, and other economic hardships — worsened in the wake of the pandemic — it is critical that the response be immediate and large-scale, but also informed by a critical equity approach. While this research was conducted prior to COVID-19, its findings are ever more important as food insecurity and unemployment skyrocket. This report aims to inform both short- and long-term responses to the circumstances gripping our nation, building on community strengths and providing an actionable roadmap for implementing necessary changes to policies, programs, and future research to ensure we meet the needs of every one of our state’s residents.

Our findings lay a critical foundation for further exploration to better identify community strengths and understand inequities in food insecurity and other economic hardships across the Commonwealth. The methods and ultimate recommendations of this project aim to chart a path for systemic change that mitigates bias rather than replicating it. We must recognize and uphold the right of economically- marginalized communities to have the resources they need to break down barriers and inform the best way to meet their own needs. We hope that these findings provide a guiding light to approach policy and systems change through a lens of both equity and action.

Our Findings

Food insecurity is shown to be harmful to people. In this sample, almost two-thirds of survey participants reported their household being food insecure.

In the context of the other findings of this survey, such as low levels of educational attainment, high levels of unemployment and associated economic hardships (housing instability, energy insecurity, forgone health care and child care constraints) participants are likely to have a hard time meeting all of their basic needs.

High rates of hardships are, on the one hand, not surprising and yet on the other provide a clear focus for intervention in East Boston. Given the majority of survey participants self-identified their race and ethnicity as Latinx and we know that many families in East Boston are also immigrants, we find it especially important that the recommended policies have a specific positive impact on Latinx immigrant families with children.

Economic hardships as well as experiences of discrimination were identified among survey participants who also reported being food insecure. While these data are recent, they highlight the legacy — and continued perpetuation — of discrimination in America, which are beliefs and behaviors based on common misconceptions that people with white skin-tone and European lineage are in some ways superior to people with black or brown skin-tones and African, Latinx, or native lineages, and therefore deserving of preferential treatment, status and privilege. While we must contend with this reality, name it and address it in genuine and meaningful ways to effect real and lasting change, we also must know that it is not easy to prevent or reverse the impact of discrimination.

Policies should be crafted that take concrete actions to increase equity not only along racial lines, but in all areas where parity is often denied to maintain the status quo of disenfranchisement, especially among those living in vulnerable conditions such as food insecurity.

Despite and even in the face of these challenges, it is crucial to recognize the strengths and perseverance that also came through clearly in these results. EBNHC survey participants possess a sense of neighborhood and community, sharing the conviction that their needs will be met through their commitment to one another. Thus, policies that sustain and uplift these vital bonds and further strengthen ideas of a common good are effective ways of making equity a reality.

Changing Policies and Structures to Promote Equity

Our Recommendations

This report demonstrates the ways in which racial and ethnic inequities drive adverse outcomes, including food insecurity and hunger in East Boston. Responding to the underlying causes of inequity will require structural changes across systems that recognize the ways in which institutions and policies interact in people's lives.

Promote systemic change that is responsive to historical racism and structural inequity.

  1. Resist harmful rhetoric and policies and instead promote a collective tone of respect for all our neighbors that confronts and takes the place of racist, xenophobic, and bigoted rhetoric that perpetuates fear and exacerbates biases. 
  2. Mitigate bias in the operations of federal and state assistance programs through agency investments in equitable access to program benefits by examining existing practices for potential bias, investing in staff training and supports, and adopting inclusion as a core operational principle at all levels.

Strengthen federal nutrition programs

Eliminate barriers to participation. 

  1. Improve communications to increase awareness about public programs among more demographic groups, including people with limited English proficiency.
  2. Reduce burdensome requirements in applying, accessing, or renewing benefits by reducing paperwork and minimizing other barriers such as face-to-face interviews and onerous verification processes. 
  3. Modernize federal nutrition programs through utilization of new technologies and processes.
  4. Create a common application for safety-net programs to minimize the bureaucratic hurdles faced by clients and ensure fewer people fall through the cracks when accessing multiple assistance programs.
  5. Eliminate the five-year waiting period to access SNAP for eligible immigrants.
  6. Remove participation in SNAP or other assistance programs from “public charge” determinations — a forward-looking test to determine if someone seeking entry to the US or legal permanent residency is likely to depend on government programs in the future.

 

Expand eligibility to include more households facing food insecurity.

  1. Expand access to free meals for all children from birth to age 18 to ensure all children receive the proper nutrition they need to thrive through easy access in the locations where they learn and play.
  2. Provide universal access to WIC to increase access to breastfeeding support and healthy foods during the critical prenatal through early childhood period. 
  3. Increase income thresholds for eligibility for SNAP so that more food-insecure, working families can access benefits.

 

Increase benefit levels and flexibility in SNAP and reimbursement rates in child nutrition programs to support consistent access to a sufficient amount of healthy food. 

  1. Increase SNAP benefits and eligibility determination to reflect the real cost of a healthy diet and other expenses. 
  2. Allow greater flexibilities in how households use SNAP benefits to include online ordering, home delivery, and hot prepared foods which will allow more families to make the best choices for their circumstance. 
  3. Improve child nutrition quality to reflect evidence-based standards and increase reimbursement rates for school, after school, summer, and child care meals.  

Address other hardships faced by food-insecure households, such as limited access to housing, child care, utilities, transportation, health care, and employment.

  1. Promote opportunities to increase educational attainment and workforce development including General Educational Development (GED)/High School Equivalency Test (HiSet), higher education and other investments in employment and training programs. 
  2. Increase minimum wage to reflect the actual cost of living and permanently tie to both a cost-of-living adjustment and inflation. 
  3. Increase benefits and eligibility for programs that provide cash assistance to low-income families through improvements to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Child Tax Credit (CTC), and Transition Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to help boost the spending or saving power of households. 
  4. Expand paid sick leave to cover all workers regardless of employer size. 
  5. Improve access to safe, affordable, stable homes for all families through investment in affordable housing, rental assistance, and eviction and displacement prevention resources. 
  6. Provide adequate funding for fuel assistance programs, specifically the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), to ensure all families are able to continue to heat their homes without making other basic need tradeoffs. 
  7. Provide universal access to high-quality, affordable, accessible child care for all families.

 

Prioritize equity-based approaches in future research and data collections. Decolonize research by:

  1. Critically examining assumptions, research questions, and methodologies as well as the composition of research teams in order to actively deconstruct harmful practices within conventionally-designed research projects. 
  2. Prioritizing the inclusion and incorporation of community members themselves in order to ensure methodologies and findings reflect priorities of the community.  

Food insecurity, along with several other hardships are rooted in poverty, which in turn are deeply entrenched in systemic and structural racism, ethnic and gender inequity, and disproportional distribution of income and wealth built into the political economy of the Commonwealth — a reflection of the country’s dynamics. To change the system, we need to advance policies that address these root causes, while investing in and improving outreach for safety-net programs, which are the best, though not a complete solution for rapidly responding to these realities.

Survey participants voiced at the focus groups and through their survey responses that they need support in understanding and applying for these programs. Given the majority of participants’ selfidentification as Latinx, that means less documentation burden and expansion of program eligibility, especially for immigrant families.

For these reasons, our policy recommendations address issues related not only to food access and program outreach, but also to issues such as wages, child care, employment, housing, and immigration within these topics. Massachusetts is a state that leads the way nationally in many regards, and still we have a long distance to travel in order to achieve a more just society in which every individual, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or country of origin can succeed.

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