‘Cascading failures of the state’: COVID-19 impacts on health, food security amplifying George Floyd protests

Stephen Maturen/Getty ImagesBy STEPHANIE EBBS, ABC NEWS

(MINNEAPOLIS, Minn.) -- In Yates High School, in Houston, Texas, where George Floyd attended, the vast majority of the students qualify for a free lunch and almost all of them are African American, according to state data published by the Texas Tribune.

In Minnesota, where Floyd moved as an adult, homeowners were allowed to write racial covenants into their property deeds until 1953. The result were deeply segregated neighborhoods until this day--some of which lack easy access to grocery stores.

Some 30% of Minnesotans are considered to have low access to food because they live so far from a grocery store, including more than 8% of black residents in the Twin Cities, according to a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and the Amherst H. Wilder Institute.

In the area around the Cup Foods where Floyd was killed, USDA says a “relatively high” number of households lived more than half a mile from a grocery store in 2010 and don’t have a car. The average price of a meal in the county is $3.61, according to data analyzed by Feeding America, but SNAP benefits provide $1.40 per person, per meal on average.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has put millions more Americans at risk of not being able to afford healthy food, as food prices have risen historic amounts in recent months.

As much of the nation debates the methods of police force on communities of color, many of the protestors say their complaints go well beyond how they are treated by law enforcement. Their objections are about the reality that growing up black means more likely to attend a substandard school, be denied a job and go hungry.

This economic inequality has preceded other periods of social unrest throughout U.S. history, including the Civil Rights movements, which are often galvanized by an event like a publicized incident of police brutality.

"I think on some level the protests that we're seeing right now are a statement of the cascading failures of the state to take care of a broad swath of its citizens," said Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor and associate chair in Duke's department of history.

“When people are out on the streets and they're in pain, that pain is about being hungry and not knowing what's going to happen,” she said of the connection between unemployment and food insecurity and the George Floyd protests.

”Three weeks ago that pain is about being disproportionately affected by COVID and that pain is about all of the slow violence that we've seen or erupt into, to frequent manifestations of immediate death.

Protesters like Arianna Evans, a 23-year-old Air Force veteran in Washington, DC, have echoed that idea, saying that their demands around George Floyd’s death are also part of a need for black people to be treated equally in society.

“We want institutional change. We want this whole system torn down. We want police to have better training. We want them to actually, actually follow their guidelines for force. We want them to actually do their jobs, to protect and serve us. We want to be economically equal. That’s all, that is all we want,” Evans told ABC News Reporter Rachel Scott.

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated inequalities and tensions, in part because Black and brown neighborhoods face more challenges sheltering in place due to lack of access to healthy food, health care, and public transportation.

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA, said his group has found black and Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles have more barriers to sheltering in place, including lack of access to food, and vehicles or public transportation to get to a grocery store. He said those kind of inequities combined with issues like unequal access to health care or more pre-existing health conditions that contribute to worse COVID-19 outcomes add to a “pressure cooker” of stressors.

“Now there's this additional stress in these neighborhoods that don't have access nearby to good food at reasonable price that, you know, there is additional stress of how do you just manage that daily weekly requirement,” he said.

“So all these things, I realize all of us have to deal with this, you know, problems under COVID-19. But what's important is the huge disparities in terms of trying to manage or survive under COVID-19. And again, it gets played out along these neighborhood lines that have been defined by class, and by race.”

Increasing food insecurity has especially drawn attention as unprecedented unemployment claims skyrocket up, leading hundreds of Americans lining up at overwhelmed food banks for help.

Roughly 37 million Americans are considered food insecure, according to USDA data from 2018, meaning they can’t afford or access healthy food on a regular basis. Of that number Black Americans face higher rates of food insecurity than other groups and almost three times the rate of food insecurity as white individuals.

Feeding America, the largest network of food banks in the country, has estimated that in the worst case scenario an additional 17 million Americans could become food insecure as a result of the pandemic. The group says the impact of COVID-19 will likely wipe out years of progress fighting hunger since the recession.

Black Americans have felt more of that impact than whites, the COVID Impact Survey found that more Black Americans reported worrying more about whether they can afford to buy food for their family in May while insecurity decreased among their white counterparts, according to a report compiled by researchers at Northwestern University.

"It just lays bare all of the ways that the system has utterly failed people of color. Right. And it lays bare, it's like to have sort of COVID punctuated by the killings of Brianna Taylor the murder of George Floyd. There's this kind of shocking aggregated evidence of how little African American life is valued,” Lentz-Smith said.

Michael J Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, said his group has seen a drastic increase in calls to its hotline that helps people apply for SNAP benefits. The Baltimore Sun reported that nearly 70,000 Maryland residents applied for SNAP in April alone, though Wilson’s group has also reported that many more people are eligible for benefits in the state but don’t apply.

Wilson said the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed “how unfair and systemically inequitable the system is” but that it has also de-stigmatized programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and getting help from food banks, which have faced stereotypes like the "welfare mom" image that emerged in the 1980s' as part of conservative rhetoric against public assistance programs.

“Some of the changes to the SNAP program because of the pandemic are the kinds of changes we should have been making a long time ago. Because there’s a perception that now it’s middle class white people that need it. These are the changes we should’ve made for the program all along, there should not have been impediments in accessing it,” he told ABC.

Ong said there are some policies in place that can address racism and inequality in economic areas like anti-discrimination laws in housing and education, as long as agencies are given enough resources to enforce them.

But he said he’s also concerned about the impact of new inequalities as a result of the pandemic such as renters going into debt and facing eviction or the possibility of severe undercounts in the census in neighborhoods hardest hit by the virus.

Rooting out and addressing those underlying causes of systemic racism are at the core of addressing inequity, experts said.

“Knowing that something is deeply rooted is not an excuse for letting it sit there, it's just unacceptable. We're tired and we're angry but we have to remember this isn't acceptable but we have to continue working to undo it,” Lentz-Smith said.

And Lentz-Smith said that even the civil rights movement, while it’s remembered for its progress on voting rights, also focused on broader change to political and economic situations that exploiting black people in America.

Wilson said ultimately Floyd’s death is a reminder that while his work on expanding food access programs is important, there’s a lot more to be done.

“I think the challenge we’re facing more broadly in society and the criminal justice system is that it’s hard to see this man being strangled to death on camera and not recognize the racism that happens for a guy who was alleged to have passed a phony dollar bill,” he told ABC.

“A public killing is not the right punishment for that kind of allegation.”

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