[Bella’s intro: Recently, I wrote about new research showing that during the COVID-19 pandemic, single people in the U.S. have been going hungry more often than married people. That was true regardless of whether or not they had children. The findings also showed that although single people were more in need of food, the married people were nearly twice as likely to have gotten free groceries or a free meal. Why was that happening? For Ellen Worthing, this was personal. She set out to answer that question, and did so in an impressive way. Then she took what she learned and went to the people who could make a difference. She made change happen, and now well over 100,000 people can potentially benefit. I am in awe. I am also deeply grateful to her for sharing her story with us.]
It Shouldn’t Be So Hard for Single People to Get Food During a Pandemic. I Did Something about That.
By Ellen Worthing
I am a single adult who lives a quiet life in Baltimore, MD. As an older person I have had some health setbacks in the last few years, I have also had the flu three times during the winter of 2019-2020. When COVID first appeared at the shores of the United States I became very concerned. It wasn’t long before pandemic cases began appearing in Maryland and Baltimore City.
The city and state quickly enacted a stay at home order and I was more than willing participant, if staying away from other people would protect me. I quickly assessed how much food I had for the duration. I realized that I was safe in my home from the virus, but not at the grocery store. There are two grocery stores within walking distance of my home. I decided that interacting inside the supermarket could expose me to the virus.
Baltimore City began a food giveaway program in mid-March which delighted me. I read about their safe food distribution system and was impressed with the steps the city was taking to ensure food preparation and distribution was hygienic and protective.
However, as I scanned the city website on how to obtain food from the COVID food program I found that 42 distribution points at Recreation Centers and 17 distribution points at schools were reserved for servicing families with children. Only 7 distribution options were available to anyone who didn’t have children under the age of 18 living in their homes. The closest distribution site that I could access as a single person was 4 miles from my home. I don’t own a car. I did not relish the idea of riding on two buses each way which would potentially expose me to the COVID virus to the food distribution site, never mind that public transportation services had been limited during the stay at home order.
It was at this point I became concerned that not only was the city food distribution program not going to help me, but it won’t help the city residents that could benefit from it. I started to look at the numbers. Baltimore has a population of 593,000 residents. According to the US Census, we live in 221,000 total households. There are 58,000 households with children, that would qualify for the COVID food program at 59 out of the 66 food distribution points. The other 163,000 households would not qualify to receive food at most of the distribution sites. Baltimore has 23% of its population living below the federal poverty line as well as 3000+ people who are homeless.
I wanted to know more so I reviewed the city run food program. It turns out it was overseen by the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success. Apparently, this office wasn’t the least bit concerned about providing accessible healthy food to people without children. It was at this point I started writing emails and complaining. I have to give the Baltimore City government credit, they heard me and swiftly made changes to the program.
So why is it that local governments are much more concerned about providing families with children healthy food and services during times of crisis and ignoring all other adults? The answer lies with the federal government’s TANF program. Cities and states are allowed to tap into the Federal Government’s “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)” to fund food programs during the COVID Pandemic. In the first paragraph of its COVID rules TANF states, “TANF funds can only be spent on families with children –they cannot be used to provide support for single adults.”
There are almost no other federal government programs that fund food programs for adults during a pandemic crisis. After I communicate with the local government that many different people were at risk during this critical time, the city rightly opted to step in to fully fund what ultimately is an extremely successful food program, with much assistance from exceptional non-profits from the area as well as internationally.
We’re still in the middle of this pandemic. Baltimore was not the only city that had this food distribution challenge. The federal government is not making any effort to change its ways for the future so that all US residents have access to healthy food during the next crisis. Almost all people pay taxes. Single people pay more taxes than married couples with children. Yet, single Americans are ignored and marginalized by a federal government which is far more concerned about the health and well-being of those who live as a family than those who live in an ever-growing population of single adults.
Ellen Worthing is a data specialist living in Baltimore, MD. She has worked on issues related to crime, homicides, police matters, bicycling. and marijuana decriminalization. She is an avid hiker and is also a local forest steward.
[From Bella, again: Thanks again, Ellen! And for anyone interested, here are more stories about how singles and people living alone are faring during the pandemic.]