June 29, 2020
Cohort Spotlight: Anna Sneltjes
Impact of Food Access in Today’s Covid-19 Environment
For the first time many can remember, grocery stores are having trouble stocking the basics, but food access challenges during the coronavirus pandemic go much deeper.
What is your current professional role, and how is the pandemic impacting your work?
I am a SNAP-Ed Educator with the University of Minnesota Extension. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a USDA program providing nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of eligible families. SNAP-Ed helps people who are eligible for food benefits to lead healthier lives through nutrition education, physical activity, and stretching their food dollars further.
Since we cannot physically be out teaching classes with participants, we’ve had to find ways to reach our audience from afar. Extension is rooted in the community and so our reach during the pandemic has looked different across the state as different communities have different needs.
Extension has working relationships with local food shelves and so there has been a lot of collaboration to find out what food they are serving and helping to create recipes they can share with clients. People using food shelves during this pandemic may be getting foods they wouldn’t have previously purchased at the store so we also share instructions on how to prepare foods like dried rice, beans, staple items, etc. We provide food safety information such as what foods to keep in the refrigerator and how long they can be stored.
We’ve also been helping food shelves interpret CDC guidance and local orders on COVID-19 to keep food shelf employees, volunteers, and clients safe. Food shelves are doing a great job staying open, adapting practices, and feeding a vulnerable community.
Can you talk about how the pandemic is changing food access right now?
Food access was an issue prior to the pandemic and is exacerbated as a part of the pandemic. Emergency food relief programs are undergoing a deep analysis at the local, state, and national levels. For some people who are healthy and able to go to the grocery store, this may be their first time having difficulty accessing food—they go to get certain ingredients and they aren’t there. I hope people use that experience to realize that for many people, accessing food is always that difficult and food insecurity is more prevalent than many might think—not just something that has happened as a result of the pandemic.
Food prices are going up at grocery stores because of the pandemic, but people do not get an increase in monthly SNAP dollars when prices rise. It just makes it more difficult to feed a family. People are having to be extra mindful of food purchases and may need to utilize a food shelf to cover shortfalls. However, something called Emergency Allotments or 'emergency SNAP' was approved by the USDA, which increased benefits this spring for those families not currently receiving the monthly maximum amount—that was crucial for our low-income audiences. As well, it is important to understand that being able to physically go to the grocery store is a privilege. So when select retailers approved purchases to be made online with SNAP, that helped address huge food equity and access issues.
When things first shut down and people lost their jobs, food shelves saw a big increase in visits. Now food shelf visits are down somewhat, possibly because unemployment benefits are starting or maybe for health or stigma reasons. There are a lot of variables that influence when and why people access food shelves. SNAP enrollment has increased significantly. However, and unfortunately for some people, the extra $600 per month from unemployment benefits also means they are no longer eligible for SNAP.
In addition to SNAP and food shelves, there are many community produce distributions, churches, and other organizations providing food for families—including the school system. We know that school meals have always been an important piece in addressing food insecurity in school-aged populations but is proving to be even more so now. Communities are being innovative in their efforts to make sure that every child has access to meals—it may be sending volunteers out on buses to neighborhoods, or partnering with County transportation services to get meals out to students who live in rural areas if they are not able to make it to the school to pick-up their meals. And thankfully, these meal services are going to be available throughout the summer for students as well.
Are the system-level conversations and curriculum in IFSL shaping your response?
My work is at the very end of the food system, working directly with consumers. Over the last nine months, I’ve learned so much from the cohort and curriculum about the other pieces of the food system that come before the consumption level.
One thing that has stuck with me from the program is the abundance of misinformation out there, whether related to food safety or claims or product labeling. In addition, there is so much misinformation right now about the COVID-19 virus as a whole. I’m keeping the misinformation in mind as we work to provide accurate information to our communities. IFSL has ingrained the importance of having representatives from across the food system when it comes to responding to issues, and I’ve made an effort to connect with colleagues from other branches of Extension throughout all of this as well.
I always want to play a role related to education and working directly with consumers, but through the IFSL program I’ve developed an interest in policy and regulation as well. IFSL has made me more curious about policies that can make different aspects of the food system more equitable and accessible for all. It’s also made me think about how we can build a food system where key functions are more widely distributed so that when something like a pandemic comes through the damage won’t be so widely felt.
Anything else you would like to share with people considering IFSL?
The world has its eyes on the food system for a number of reasons right now. I would encourage those who want to be involved as leaders in those conversations to consider the IFSL program as a step towards doing so.
For a couple of years, I wanted to pursue further education with an emphasis on the food system. Once I heard about this program I was immediately interested, as I knew it would be an opportunity to learn about aspects of the food system outside of my current role while building upon the current work I do. Plus, the online and flexible format makes the program very manageable in the midst of working full-time. I have really valued being a part of the IFSL program.
Integrated Food Systems Leadership (IFSL) Program
Designed for working professionals, the IFSL program is an exciting graduate certificate program that fosters leadership, collaboration, and innovation across the food system. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Download a program brochure or schedule a consultation call for more information.