The Impact of Covid-19 Pandemic on the Food Insecurity Crisis ft. Stephanie Asymkos

Updated: May 9

Kriti: [00:00:00] Welcome to WhyFI Matters!!

So, first of all, I want to wish you all a happy financial literacy month. It's April it's financial literacy month. Also, coincidentally, last April, so April of 2020 was when I released my first podcast episode. So, Happy Anniversary to WhyFI Matters. Thank you so much for listening to this podcast. It really means a lot, and I hope you're getting valuable information from it and enjoying it. So thank you so much for listening.

Today, I wanted to talk about a subject that I haven't really discussed on the podcast before, but it definitely relates to economic empowerment, poverty, and also current events like the pandemic.

I wanted to learn more about the intersection between food insecurity and the COVID 19 pandemic. So, today I've invited Stephanie Asymkos on the podcast to discuss these topics. Stephanie is a personal finance reporter at Yahoo finance, and she writes on food insecurity, hunger, travel, and retirement.

I hope you enjoyed the interview.

Hi, Stephanie, thank you so much for coming on WhyFI Matters today. I'm super excited to have you on the podcast to learn more about specifically food insecurity and also how money and finances play a role in contributing to this. I also want to learn more about ways that we can spread awareness and also support those who have food insecurity.

So, thank you so much for coming and I can't wait to learn more.

Stephanie: [00:01:55] I'm excited to talk. This is one of my favorite subjects and I'm so happy that you're interested in this and I really hope that this resonates with your audience.

Kriti: [00:02:05] I think it will. So I'm excited to start. But I think before we talk about food insecurity and the nitty gritty aspects of that, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career and how you even got into journalism. And then eventually focusing and dialing in on food insecurity and even personal finances.

Stephanie: [00:02:26] Definitely. Well, my name is Stephanie Askymos. I am a reporter at Yahoo finance. I've been there for almost about two years. And before that I did a whole tour as a freelancer. And then before that I worked at Business Insider. And then before that I worked in public relations.

I worked in PR for about seven or eight years in many different shapes. I got my start at a nonprofit, where I did communications and I did things like blog posts and social media. And this is when social media was first starting. So it was kind of like the, the wild, wild West of, of Twitter and Facebook and translating those audiences into was a nonprofit.

So like translating them into donors or to volunteers and just kind of like building awareness that way. And that is basically like the past, 15 or so years of my life. I don't think that maybe when I was a high school student, I thought I would be a reporter. Um, maybe I think so. But I think a little bit of that would be some revisionist history on my part.

Um, because I had a lot of talents and passions then that I have now. But I'm probably am look romanticizing it a little bit. I'm definitely not one of those people who knew exactly what I wanted to do when I was a high schooler. And then, you know, even in just talking, I started in PR and then abruptly changed when I was about 29 and went to journalism school.

Kriti: [00:04:16] So I can take any path.

Stephanie: [00:04:20] Yeah, you can think it's not a 180. I stayed within media, but change to editorial.

Kriti: [00:04:27] That's a pretty interesting career path at night, you know, what's special, I've interviewed like a lot of journalists, some of you, some of your colleagues, maybe even, but I love hearing how everyone has their own sort of story of getting to where they are.

But what kind of got you interested in reporting about food insecurity and personal finances.

Stephanie: [00:04:52] Okay. So, when you asked me explain who I was when I was younger, um, pretty much the same person. I've kept a lot of the same talents and interests that I did when I was a student. I had a lot of teachers throughout my education tell me that I had a knack for writing. I had really incredible teachers that were just master educators who were just great at telling stories and getting people engaged. And I've also am a huge bookworm. So kind of like threading the needle through all of those things is pretty much news media. I'm also a huge introvert and I love working alone, which is also perfect for reporting.

And I also really took a shining to certain high school classes, like my school had like a TV production class and photography, which is kind of laughable now because everything was on film. It wasn't digital. So nevertheless, it was in media and a lot of the same principles there apply. But this was, you know, I graduated high school 16 years ago before the invention of the iPhone, before YouTube, before Twitter, before Instagram. The news cycle, wasn't what it was now. And things were just different. And I don't mean that in like I miss it because there are many things about that time that I don't miss.

And, I think particularly now, that diversity and inclusion and representation have become mainstream movements. I think that we all there's as humanity. Like we all benefit from it. As a high school student, I was like involved in things. I always tried. I wasn't particularly like the star athlete or like the lead in the musical, but I tried. And I was just there to have fun. And, I guess like personality traits , I would consider myself like, very conscientious , perceptive, listener and then was, they're all huge and important skills to have as a reporter. Because I have to listen to people and connect threads. Your high school years definitely don't have to define you, but it's just, uh, I really loved that question because it's not a time that I often, I don't really sit around and think about high school.

So anyway, make a jump cut to 15 years later, it's 2020. I'm a reporter at Yahoo finance and I report on areas personal finance, like retail news , the spending and saving habits of Americans and the newsroom. This was winter of 2020. So, the newsrooms watching COVID-19 spread. We're kind of watching it through, through China, through Italy, just sort of how F just the movement. And then when March arrived, everything changed. So, I started reporting on food insecurity, actually from a tip from my editor, Janet Herron, and to her credit, she saw unemployment numbers rise, and that's what everyone was talking about. Right. But she made the connection to the very like sobering and very widely reported stat that 61% of Americans can't afford a $1,000 unexpected expense.

So, if fewer than four in 10, us adults could absorb the cost of like an emergency car repair or an ER visit. And millions are applying for unemployment by day. That meant essentials like rent or mortgage or food, where they were gone out to be a hardship. Yeah.

So I started calling the USDA, state SNAP agencies, food banks, economists, academic experts, and then talking to real people who had been laid off, who were in the process of applying for SNAP benefits and then those who already started receiving SNAP benefits. And those people, I think that they added the most color to my reporting. And I also really trust those people for allowing you to share their stories. Because they're deeply personal and , I just really thank them for trusting me. So then with all that, I was just getting stories out and reporting on this beat has been some of my proudest work.

And then to put a timestamp on this, this was in early April, 2020. So this was before stimulus checks were cut and, we all remember like what a terrifying time that was, like schools were closed, hospitals were overflowing. So, I'm still very much personal finance reporter. That is my, you know, my heart, my base, my route, but following the food insecurity and hunger crisis, has been very rewarding and it really thank my editor for allowing me letting you

Kriti: [00:10:05] know all of, yeah.

So what exactly is food insecurity?

Stephanie: [00:10:11] Right. So the USDA is the US department of agriculture and it is the government agency that oversees what it is that we eat, and how we should be eating it and quantities, kind of makes all those decisions. It defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active and healthy life. And it's important to not misrepresent food insecurity and hunger. Academics and experts consider hunger and food insecurity, think of them as like cousins and not sisters. Like they're not the same thing. They're distinct. And hunger refers to this sensation of like discomfort and hunger pains. Right. And food insecurity is the lack of available financial resources for food for the household. So, one way that I can share this is that one is an empty fridge because no one's gone grocery shopping. And the other is an empty fridge because the household doesn't have the means. Yeah, it doesn't have the means or resources to stock that fridge.

Kriti: [00:11:32] And it's big, big stark, different really between the two

Stephanie: [00:11:39] And it, and it's closely related to poverty, but I want to draw this distinction. Is that just because of family or individual's income, places them below the poverty line, it doesn't make them food insecure. And then the flip side of that is just because someone lives above the poverty line, doesn't make them food secure.

Kriti: [00:12:00] Then what does make you food secure? Like how can you measure it?

Stephanie: [00:12:04] Okay. So in 2006, USDA created a continuum extending from high food insecurity to low food security. So there are four ranges.

So what is categorized as secure is high food security, meaning the household has no issues or anxieties about putting food on the table. One step down is marginal food security, which the household defines itself or identifies as that, you know, sometimes there are problems and anxieties, but by and large food quantities are not reduced. That continuum we've moved over to insecure, which is low food security, which means that households start to reduce the quality, variety and desirability of their diets. But the quantity of food is pretty much normal and eating patterns are not disrupted. And then below that is very low food security, which means that eating patterns of household members are disrupted and food intake is reduced, out of necessity, meaning that there are no financial resources or money to buy more.

And the way that all of this data comes to academics and to the public is through surveys and asking respondents to self identify for their household.

Kriti: [00:13:42] Do you have an estimate on how many people in the world are affected by food insecurity?

Stephanie: [00:13:50] Yeah. Yes. So the most recent numbers actually come from 2019, so it doesn't include COVID. But the UN food and agriculture organization shows that almost 690 million people in the world, or roughly like 9% of the world's population were under nourished in 2019. And the preponderance of those people live in Asia. I think that the leading country is China. Yeah.

Kriti: [00:14:20] Okay. So what is the scene like in the U S right now, or, and also before the pandemic?

Stephanie: [00:14:27] yes. So it's a number one important to share that food insecurity existed prior to the pandemic. But the pandemic made an entire new population of people, food insecure. So in 2019 food insecurity was that about 10 and a half percent or 13.7 million households, households, not people. So that was actually down from a 2011 high of roughly 15% which is great.

But where we are now is that number has jumped to 22 and a half million Americans. Right. And that's according to census household pulse data. And the most recent data we have from that is February 17th to March 1st. So, we're recording in mid-March so about three weeks ago, four weeks ago, um, Americans reported that there was either some times, or not enough to eat in the last seven days. So, but it's actually down. The pandemic era high was actually 13.7% in December. Um, yeah. Interesting. And we've come down from that because of the remaining effects of that $900 billion stimulus package at the end of 2020. That beefed up food assistance, extended really key unemployment programs and then distributed stimulus checks.

And that we know last thing it was last Friday, president Biden's signed into law. The, the $ 1.9 trillion American rescue plan, which we can talk about that has even more provisions for food assistance and food insecurity. So help is on the way.

Kriti: [00:16:24] So you mentioned this new population. Can you tell us more who is comprised of this population?

Stephanie: [00:16:32] So the data shows that households with children are disproportionately affected. For contacts the number of children living in homes with food insecurity or food scarcity has ballooned from 1.1 million in December, 2019 to what estimated 11 million. And that's according to an analysis of the census data.

Kriti: [00:16:58] Oh, my God.

Stephanie: [00:16:59] Right? So we went from 1.1 million to 11 million in this span of, and now, year.

Kriti: [00:17:07] Do you think it's because a lot of children were able to get their meals from school and since the school's closed, that's why?

Stephanie: [00:17:15] Absolutely. Gosh, you're so smart. Yes. So in 2020, um, you know, people thought about this and created the pandemic EDT, or you probably hear it as P E B T, which is , exactly what you said, families whose children received free or reduced price meals from their schools. If all those children are now learning from home, they're missing those weekday meal options. Right. So families were given the cash equivalent to buy groceries and benefits have slowly rolled out and continue to do so. And they'll, they'll pick up steam, which is really wonderful because food insecurity has immediate and long range consequences, especially in children.

And, you know, doctors research shows that it leads to cognitive problems, aggression, anxiety , low test scores, higher risk of being hospitalized and just like an overall poor health. Yeah, it's terrible. I mean, asthma, behavioral problems, depression. It just gets worse. It just goes from bad to worse.

So it, it is absolutely a crisis!

Kriti: [00:18:36] So, what has the government really done to help? And, do you think what they're doing is working?

Stephanie: [00:18:44] Great questions. So the third wave of stimulus checks no, not the third way. The fourth way of, we'll go out to Americans. So that will be $1,400 minimum , for qualifying households. So those American households, whose previous tax filings were under a certain income threshold. This just ensures that money goes to people who need it the most and not the super wealthy.

So the $1,400 we'll go out there will also be added provisions. If you have dependents or young people, people under 17, living in your home. Be it, you know, sons, daughters, nieces, however your family is made up. And then beyond that, there are also, government programs to beef up the unemployment insurance rate. And then if you are receiving unemployment insurance, you receive what your previous salary was based on what state you live in and then federally you'll receive an additional $300 a week, to supplement your unemployment insurance from your state.

Kriti: [00:20:04] Has there been any other ways, like before the pandemic, before all these stimulus checks, have the, has the government had anything set up to help with food insecurity?

Stephanie: [00:20:16] Oh, absolutely. So, the SNAP program, which is known as the supplemental nutrition assistance program. You may have heard it referred to as food stamps.

Okay. Yeah.

Kriti: [00:20:31] Oh, I, I never linked the two. So food stamps and SNAP are the same.

Stephanie: [00:20:38] They're the same thing actually. Don't call it food stamps anymore. It's kind of just an antiquated, maybe a little insensitive the term. And it's actually , they're not even stamps anymore.

Kriti: [00:20:50] Uh, in the olden days there they were, right?

Stephanie: [00:20:53] Yeah. You would get like a war ration book and you dealt with it for flour, a stamp for sugar. I don't know this from experience of course, but, um, that's, you know what I've right, right. Yeah. Yeah. Course of course everything goes back to TV. Um, but depending on your household size, your income, your state, um, that all corresponds with a monthly benefit amount and every state has a different threshold that can be found with just like some light Googling.

So whenever there's a change in household status, like a new family member or someone moved away, or like a change in an income, all that gets reported to. Because that could increase or decrease your monthly allowance. Right. So applications can be found online. So we've sun-setted food stamps and for many, many years, States have now operated with EBT or electronic balance transfer cards. And the benefits are dispersed monthly. So that means that when it is like your time that the clock resets. The monthly benefit that you receive based on your households, size income, all those things that I said before, that means that your monthly benefit just goes straight to your EBT card. And then you don't have to like deposit anything. You don't have to go to a bank. It's just like magically there. And then with your EBT card, anything from produce meat, dairy, fish, poultry, breads, non-alcoholic beverages, even like seeds and plants to grow your own food. Those can be purchased at farmer's markets.

So there are things that can not be purchased with EBT, and those are essentially like vices , things like alcohol, tobacco lottery tickets , and then any food from a hot bar or anything that's like prepared and then there's no pet food. We want to keep it humans only. Um, or I know, sorry, pets.

And then there's no cleaning supplies or cosmetics allowed. But the point of this EBT card is that it's really no different than a debit card or a credit card. And no one will know it's an EBT card except for the cashier.

Kriti: [00:23:28] Oh, see, that's interesting cause it there's like a lot of stigma surrounding that. This is a way they've kind of removed it. Then why , why is there still food insecurity if everyone should be able to have this?

Stephanie: [00:23:45] That's a great question. I mean, not everyone qualifies for the SNAP income threshold. You can exceed it but still have a lot of financial struggles within your home. But then also some households might live in areas that are known as food deserts, which means that they do not have reasonable access to fresh produce things like poultry meats that would go in like an omnivore diet. And they'll have to subside on empty calories. Things that come from processed foods.

Kriti: [00:24:25] Detrimental to their health.

Stephanie: [00:24:27] Exactly.

Kriti: [00:24:29] In general, do you think that being financially literate can help some of the families become food secure? Or do you think it's just past the point where any financial knowledge will be able to really help them out?

Stephanie: [00:24:44] I'm a huge proponent for financial literacy. I think it should be taught. This subject that I did not learn in school. But to use that as a bandaid for food insecurity, I think we're talking about two different things. different.

Yeah. Yeah. Like night and day. I mean, you could know the importance of budgeting and the importance of spending less than what you make. But if you just don't have enough money to put food on the table, you don't have enough money to put food on the table. And it's not a matter of, I need to spend less on these superfluous things.

I think that a lot of the personal finance gurus. This is where they totally missed the boat. And they'll tell people, stop buying lattes and stop, you know, I'm a millennial, so it's like nothing but like berating us of like, you spend too much money on avocado toast, stop.

Kriti: [00:25:46] I love avocado toast.

Stephanie: [00:25:49] And it's one of those things of like, you're missing an entire population of people who they're already not buying.

Kriti: [00:26:00] They're not even buying avocados or anything, or

Stephanie: [00:26:04] they're not spending their money on Starbucks. They're not having one too many subscriptions. this is not a, a solution of like, we'll keep Netflix and cancel Hulu to go. Don't have either.

Kriti: [00:26:18] That's a good point.

Stephanie: [00:26:19] Right? Thank you.

Kriti: [00:26:23] Do you think that this whole crisis will improve after the pandemic is over. Or do you think we're going to see the effects of the pandemic for years to come in the future?

Stephanie: [00:26:36] Such a great question. I mean, the optimist in me says, yes, I think that the pandemic has unfortunately brought more awareness to the issue, but I think that's a good thing.

We talked a little bit about the 1.9 trillion American rescue plan. So of that, like 1.9 trillion, 12 billion was carved out for provisions to eliminate childhood hunger. And yeah, and the economists I speak with are really happy about this. And I will say that they call it a start. it's not a solution. It's a start. So I will I'll co-opt their response and say that it's a start.

Kriti: [00:27:22] So, how have some other organizations besides the U S government like food banks or also like the YMCA and churches have, how have they kept up with the demand for food during this time. How have they helped, those who are food insecure?

Stephanie: [00:27:40] Absolutely. I mean, they have done a Herculean effort.

The images of cars lined up for miles and miles and miles outside of food banks . I certainly won't